Liga - Ronaldo scores stunner as Real edge Rayo
Cristiano Ronaldo’s 29th La Liga goal of the season was enough for Real Madrid to see off resilient ten-man Rayo Vallecano 1-0.
The Portuguese winger cheekily backheeled the ball into the net from eight yards out after Rayo failed to adequately clear Mesut Ozil's outswinging corner in the 54th minute, to secure another three points for the Spanish table-toppers.
And in the dying moments, Michu saw red for a lunge on Sami Khedira, even though replays confirmed that the Rayo midfielder clearly won the ball, to compound the home side’s misery further.
Nevertheless, Real’s fighting spirit was put under the test from the off as Rayo Vallecano began in spirited fashion – Diego Costa in particular was alert to evading both Sergio Ramos and Pepe in order to create space to receive through-balls from the likes of Michu and Emilio Armenteros on several occasions.
The home crowd were creating an intimidating atmosphere for their esteemed city rivals and it took Real ten minutes to carve out their first opening. Marcelo clipped the ball through for Ozil, who lost out to Alejandro Arribas just as the German playmaker was about to pull the trigger.
Chances for the visitors in the opening first-half were to prove few and far between and Gonzalo Higuain appeared to cut an increasingly isolated figure upfront for Real.
The Argentinean was played through in the 20th minute, but Arribas was once again on hand to impede his marker’s progress as Higuain journeyed towards the Rayo goal.
Then, just past the half-hour mark, Sergio Ramos picked out Higuain with a deep cross from the right flank, but the striker’s first touch was heavy and resulting shot flew wide – the fact that Real’s frontman had strayed marginally offside prior to the chance offered some sparing of blushes.
As Real’s frustrations in front of goal grew, they were limited to a couple of consecutive Ronaldo 25-yard snapshots that both flew past Joel Robles’ far post around the 26th minute mark.
And Rayo almost capitalised on the visitors’ blunt approach in the attacking final third, with Piti receiving the ball in acres of space out on the left flank in the 40th minute, before jinking inside and unleashing a savage right-footed shot that had the sincere misfortune of cannoning back off the inside of Iker Casillas’ far post.
Then, shortly afterwards, a mix-up in the Real defence almost allowed Michu to sneak in but Ramos was quick to recover and get a foot on the ball.
Ramos himself was lucky to still be on the field, for after receiving a yellow card due to an earlier infringement, the Real defender then appeared to elbow Diego Costa in the chest but the referee adjudged that the Rayo striker had instead dived.
The second-half began in much the same vein as the first had finished with Real lacking rhythm and becoming increasingly frustrated by Rayo’s dogged, fighting display.
That was until Ronaldo’s moment of magic just five minutes before the hour-mark. Yet Real still looked far from convincing, despite having nudged ahead in the match.
Indeed, it was Rayo who grew in confidence and they could easily have registered an equaliser, as they twice went close in as many minutes as the match drew to a close.
First, Michu was guilty of blazing well over in the 72nd minute with the goal at his mercy after Armenteros had robbed the ball deep in Real territory following a Sergio Ramos slip.
Then Jose Casado let fly with a 40-yard piledriver that Iker Casillas managed to get a strong palm to in pushing the ball over his bar, with the effort having thundered towards the top corner of the Real goal.
As the game became increasingly stretched in the closing minutes, both sides had opportunities to impact on the scoreline with Rayo’s Armenteros and Real's Ronaldo the main culprits with respective near-misses.
Michu’s dubious straight red card on the 90-minute mark turned the final proceedings sour, but it did not affect Real as the champions-elect held on to secure victory and open up a commanding 13-point lead over arch-rivals Barcelona at the top of La Liga.