Ramos red tames Real
Sergio Ramos has spent much of this week in the spotlight in Madrid, especially after Jose Mourinho blamed him directly for Manchester United's goal in the 1-1 Champions League draw on Wednesday night.
The defender was again the centre of attention at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Sunday's 2-0 victory over city neighbours Rayo Vallecano, with his entire contribution - and most of the game's action - packed into 17 first-half minutes.
After full debutant Alvaro Morata had put Madrid in front early, Ramos made his mark. First he headed Mesut Ozil's free kick into the net to put his side in full control of proceedings. But then he handed the visitors a potential way back into the game by picking up two - admittedly harsh - yellow cards inside one minute.
Karanka, once more taking Mourinho's media duties after the game, declined to comment directly on Ramos' state of mind but echoed his boss's previous claims that his team are not getting a fair shake from referees in Spain this season.
"It was more of the same," Karanka said. "This has happened to us before. It did not surprise us. It is a concern, as it happens in many games, and very early in them. It keeps happening to us."
Rayo were unable to capitalise, however, and Madrid's ten men were comfortable throughout, with home keeper Diego Lopez having little trouble picking up his first clean sheet since returning to the club last month.
The visitor's boss Paco Jemez shared his disappointment in the Bernabeu press room.
"I am not leaving here happy," he said. "We made some chances, but we should have done much more, even against a team as good as Madrid."
There had also been drama, of a different sort, in September's reverse fixture, which Madrid had won 2-0. The kick-off for that match was postponed 24 hours following the floodlight failure which brought claims of 'football terrorism' by Rayo's 'Bukaneros' ultras from president Raul Martin Presa, although the subsequent police investigation suggested disgruntled former club employees were more likely responsible.
The Bukaneros were in full voice before kick-off in the Bernabeu, with about 2,000 [a huge number of travelling fans for Spain] having made the 10 mile journey across the city. The distance between the teams' finances is a lot further. Madrid's annual budget is €517 million [La Liga's highest], while Rayo struggle by on just €8 million [its lowest]. Rayo's entire squad is now made up of either youth products, free signings or loan deals.
Even still, Jemez's side had come into the weekend sixth in the table, with such success achieved not by scrapping and eking out results, but by playing exciting 'vertical' football under Paco Jemez, a no-nonsense Spanish international defender turned devotee to the beautiful game. The stats showed Rayo had the fourth highest average possession per game in the division [55 per cent] and the joint-second number of shots per game , beaten only by Madrid . There was no extra defender included for the Bernabeu trip, with Rayo sticking to their usual 4-2-3-1, featuring Brazilian starlet Leo Baptistao as a roaming centre-forward.
Madrid were missing the injured Iker Casillas, while Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Luka Modric and Gonzalo Higuain were suspended and Marcelo was again dropped from the matchday squad due to his ongoing fitness issues. Mourinho gave Kaka another chance to regain his form and Ramos was placed at right-back, but the main surprise was a first ever Primera Division start for Morata, 20, at centre-forward, with Karim Benzema benched.
Madrid came out all guns blazing themselves, and Morata had his second goal of the season just two minutes into the game. Ozil cleverly pulled the ball back across goal from the right side of the area and the Spanish under-age international showed composure to slot home from close range.
But Rayo were unbowed and kept pressing high, almost getting their reward when Argentine 'enganche' Chori Dominguez flashed a shot just wide after Pepe had passed sloppily out from the back.
Ramos then intervened. Much of the talk after Wednesday's 1-1 had been around Madrid's weakness at defending set-pieces and especially the former Sevilla man's culpability or not for Danny Welbeck's headed goal. The defender showed he is perhaps better at dealing with dead balls in the opposition area by powerfully heading in Ozil's clipped delivery, for his 50th career goal, with just 12 minutes played.
He soon had his 16th Madrid red card, increasing his club record tally. The first yellow card from Jose Luis Paradas Romero was for a nothing foul on Leo in the midfield. The second came just 60 seconds later for [unintentionally] blocking a Jose Manuel Casado cross with a raised arm. It looked harsh, but Spanish officials' handball rulings have puzzled everyone lately, as Karanka himself said.
"In every game you see incidents that confuse everyone - players, coaches and fans," he said. "It is difficult to know exactly [what the law is]."
Whatever about its justification, the decision gave Rayo renewed hope. 'Yes we can', chanted the away support, and they wanted a penalty soon after too when topscorer Piti tumbled in the box, but Paradas Romero correctly adjudged there to be no foul. The visitors did pour men forward, but to little effect. Varane made an excellent intervention to dispossess Piti near the penalty spot, and midfielder Roberto Trashorras blazed over from 12 yards after a well worked short-corner had opened up a chance.
Jemez said his team had tried to attack as much as they could, but admitted they had not caused Madrid enough problems.
"The early goals did not affect our approach to the game, but it was very difficult to come back when they were ahead so early," he said. "They were pretty comfortable, even after Ramos was sent off."
Mourinho's reshuffle involved withdrawing the unfortunate Morata with Raul Albiol coming on at right-back. Ronaldo was then playing alone up top, and he rounded Rayo keeper Ruben from Ozil's pass but hit the side netting from a tight angle.
Madrid remained pretty comfortable after the break, with Rayo unable to break them down. Raphael Varane again impressed with his composure and keeper Diego Lopez was mostly a spectator. A Fabio Coentrao handball while clearing that corner - another memory of those set-piece blues - which should have been a Rayo penalty, was a rare scare, as was Lass firing into the side-netting from 15 yards.
Leo, who has been very good lately and is assumed to be joining Atletico Madrid next summer for about €6 million, was quiet, with his most notable second-half intervention was to block a Piti 12-yarder when Lopez looked beaten.
Jemez, currently serving a touchline ban, was on the phone from the stand and winger Jose Carlos replaced Casado as his team went to three at the back. This made little difference to the visitors' cutting edge up front, but left them more open in defence, and Khedira missed a clear chance to increase Madrid's advantage.
The Rayo coach admitted to a certain frustration that his team had not frustrated Madrid's defence.
"Most of our attacks just fizzled out," he said. "Madrid scored their two goals without needing to attack too much, that is what big teams can do."
With the result looking safe and Mourinho already thinking to more important games ahead, Ozil was withdrawn and Di Maria was substituted on for the last 20 minutes. Mourinho also tried out a 3-5-1 shape with Albiol in the midfield for a while, perhaps an option should Xabi Alonso not recover from his groin problems in time for Madrid's two potentially season-defining away legs at the Camp Nou [Copa del Rey February 26] and Old Trafford [March 5].
Karanka said the game's relatively boring second half was a direct result of the sending off.
"It was a pity for the game, as it had began as a good game for the fans," he said. "It could have been a nice game, but it was not."
As Rayo were left kicking themselves for missing a chance to really strut their stuff in the public glare, Ramos was perhaps looking forward to a few days of quiet time. He will now miss next weekend's La Liga trip to bottom side Deportivo la Coruna, but should be back nice and rested when the real stuff starts again.