By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It was seemingly just what was needed. Following back-to-back defeats in the last six days, Real Madrid's demolition of city rivals Rayo Vallecano was a welcome win for los Blancos and should have been a happy occasion. But as both Barcelona and Atletico came through tough tests to stay above them in La Liga, this was no happy day for Carlo Ancelotti's side - and it ended with boos for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Barca emerged victorious from a difficult derby date at Espanyol in Saturday's first fixture, with Gerardo Martino's men claiming a vital victory thanks to Lionel Messi's second-half penalty. That was the only goal of a fiercely disputed Catalan clash and Tata was a relieved man afterwards. "Derbies are never easy," he said. "But you have to win them."
They did and on the balance of play Barca deserved all three points, yet the result was not without controversy because Neymar (who missed a sitter from four yards out in the first half) handled the ball before Espanyol's Javi Lopez was penalised for the same thing in the spot kick award, while Javier Mascherano escaped unpunished following what looked like a clear foul on the same player at the other end. Contact began outside the box but looked to continue inside the area. Barca were the better team but received the benefit of the doubt on both calls and that, ultimately, was the difference.
Martino, however, was unkeen to discuss those decisions. "I find it deplorable that we don't talk about the football itself," he compained afterwards. "I said so in Argentina and it's the same here."
Whether he wants to or not, Messi's three penalties in a week (two against Madrid at the Bernabeu and one at Espanyol) have setlled the two greatest grudge games in his side's fixture list and, much more significantly, changed the course of this title race.
Diego Costa (who else?) raced from deep to level the scores with a superb strike midway through the first half, before Koke completed the comeback and Thibaut Courtois ensured the Rojiblancos would be heading home with all three points by producing a spectacular save from an Aritz Aduriz header late on.
Atleti remain top with seven games left, but Simeone still won't talk about the title. "Let us live to enjoy our reality, every minute, every training session, every game," he said. "As soon as we start to think beyond that, we won't have the same chances as Madrid or Barcelona."
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After all that, it was perhaps unsurprising that Madrid made a subdued start at home to Rayo, with many fans staying away as the rain poured down. And those supporters who did show up hardly helped the cause as they jeered Diego Lopez, Karim Benzema and even Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese opened the scoring with a superb first, set up the second and played a pivotal pass in the third, but was the recipient of the Bernabeu boos late on after opting to go alone when he could - and probably should - have passed. After all he had done to set Madrid on their way, it seemed ungrateful, but was probably a reaction to his - and the team's - poor performances in the defeats against Barca and Sevilla earlier in the week.
"I said before that I understand us being booed because sometimes that's what we deserved," Ancelotti said afterwards. "Now, though, I cannot understand it because we made a great effort and booing Cristiano makes no sense."
On their hopes of silverware, the Italian added with some optimism: "Physically we are in good shape. If we win all of our games, at least we'll win the Champions League and the Copa del Rey..."
But not necessarily La Liga, because that's out of their hands now - and even more so after Barca and Atletico stood strong to come through their tough tests on Saturday.
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