| Real Madrid’s Luis Figo (left) vies with Iriney of Rayo Vallecano at the Santiago Bernabeu Sunday. (AFP)
Madrid: Relegation-threatened Rayo Vallecano nearly pulled off the shock of the season until three goals in a drama-filled last five minutes gave leaders Real Madrid a lopsided 3-1 win in their Spanish League derby on Saturday.
Real are unbeaten in their last 48 league games at home but were staring defeat in the face for most of the match against their modest neighbours until Fernando Morientes grabbed an equaliser five minutes from time.
Morientes’ header clearly demoralised Rayo, who must have felt they were on the verge of a memorable victory after Luis Cembranos had put them ahead in the ninth minute.
Javier Portillo then added salt to Rayo’s wounds by heading home the winner as normal time ran out and then Morientes added to Rayo’s misery with his second goal deep in injury time.
“We lost concentration in those final minutes and went to sleep. Against a team like Real, that’s fatal,” lamented Rayo’s Paraguayan coach Gustavo Benitez.
Real now have a six-point cushion at the top of the table with 60 points from 28 games, although second-placed Real Sociedad play at Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.
However the reigning European champions should be thanking their lucky stars, and will surely know that Manchester United are unlikely to be so generous when the pair meet in their Champions League quarter final first leg on Tuesday.
“This result will give us a lift for the game against Manchester and getting three points is satisfying when you consider what happened,” conceded Real coach Vicente del Bosque.
“But we didn’t play well and had to struggle for this victory against a team that fought and played well when they had the ball. They made a good start to the game,” he added. Rayo’s start was so good that they could have easily emulated real and got a trio of goals in quick succession.
Cembranos and Michel Sanchez both went close in the opening skirmishes before a swerving freekick from Cembranos across the face of goal on nine minutes evaded Real keeper Iker Casillas. Real immediately threw everything into attack but Rayo were adept at getting their men back in numbers and thwarted their neighbours until Morientes’ breakthrough.
Real looked a better side in the second half, with Solari coming on for his lack lustre fellow Argentine midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, but struggled to get a shot on target.
Ronaldo had one of his worst games in a Real Madrid shirt and Del Bosque eventually gave up on the world Player of the Year, replacing him with Morientes. It proved to be an inspired change.
Morientes had only been on the pitch for barely a minute before getting his first League goal of the season, the prefect present on his 27th birthday. “I’m very happy for the goalscorers because they don’t get to play very much, but they are still an important part of this team,” emphasised Del Bosque.
The defeat leaves luckless Rayo mired in relegation trouble, one place and two points of the bottom of the table.
Barcelona’s unbeaten streak since Radomir Antic took over two months ago came to an end at Villarreal, who notched up their first ever home victory over the Catalans thanks to two penalties.
Jorge Lopez got Villarreal’s first from the spot after 58 minutes after Barca defender Juan Pablo Sorin brought down Antonio di Nigris. Sorin’s sorry night was completed when he got his second yellow card 15 minutes from time. Villarreal made it 2-0 in injury time from Javier Calleja’s penalty, after Fabio Rochemback had brought down his fellow Brazilian Belletti.
Valencia’s chances of retaining their League title ebbed further away when they went down 2-0 at Real Betis, the Champions League quarter finalists’ third League defeat in their last four outings. Fernando Fernandez and Arzu Garcia scored for Betis while Valencia ended the game with ten men after the dismissals of Roberto Ayala and Ruben Baraja. (AFP)