The Blancos captain opened the scoring at Alaves but then gave away a penalty, meaning the visitors needed a late goal from Dani Carvajal to prevail
Championships aren’t just statement victories by four or five goals on sunny, lazy afternoons where everything just clicks into place.
They aren’t only about jousting with the elite and coming out on top.
Title wins are built on games like this, miserable lunchtime trips to the freezing Basque Country in the driving rain, against stubborn mules of opponents in noisy, hostile atmospheres.
On Saturday afternoon, Real Madrid went to Mendizorroza and survived, leaving with three points after a tight 2-1 win over Alaves.
As well as sending the Blancos three points clear at the top of La Liga, piling the pressure on Barcelona ahead of the Catalans’ trip to Atletico Madrid on Sunday night, this hard-earned victory also strengthened the feeling that this year Zinedine Zidane’s side are the real deal.
Madrid showed that their recent upturn in form wasn’t just down to some plain-sailing weather.
This is a team that can weather storms; get down and dirty when required, which is precisely what Madrid of last season – still drunk on their triple Champions League success – could not do. They lacked the guts and grit to fight; the desire to scrap and gnaw their way to crucial points.
But as left-back Marcelo said afterwards of the current side, “These are the games we like, with the cold, knocks and kicks.”
Captain Sergio Ramos embodied their fighting spirit against Alaves, for good and bad, though, with the skipper playing his usual Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde role by opening the scoring but then giving away the equaliser.
The first half was a flat affair, which was Alaves’s intention. The hosts sat back and were compact, proving hard for Madrid to pick holes in, while at the same time occasionally looking to hit the visitors on the break.
One such occasion might have led to the opening goal but former Barcelona wide man Aleix Vidal was harshly booked for a dive when Eder Militao caught his foot in the area.
Vidal looked incredulous after the referee produced a yellow card instead of pointing to the penalty spot.
Gareth Bale, who continued his rehabilitation with his first start since ‘flag-gate’, hit the post with a deflected header but it was one of few opportunities in a dour opening 45 minutes.
Eventually a moment of quality cut through the downpour, with Toni Kroos’s millimetre-perfect free-kick nodded home by Ramos in the 52nd minute.
Less than a quarter of an hour later, Alaves were level through Lucas Perez’s well-taken penalty, after Ramos had stupidly felled Joselu with a needless elbow.
The Spanish defender had already dispossessed the striker when he decided to throw out his harm, catching Joselu in the face.
Ramos feels his terrible disciplinary record is unjust but this was a clear example of why he has racked up 25 red cards: unnecessary recklessness.
His team-mate for club and country, Dani Carvajal, quickly dug him out of his hole, though, by scrambling home the winner, after Isco’s brave header had come back off the post.
That’s what happens, though, when a team are in good form and battling for one another.
Alaves piled on the pressure late on, forcing Madrid to deal with five consecutive corners, but the visitors cleared every one, refusing to let go of their precious points, even through eight long minutes of stoppage time.
As wet and cold as it was in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Madrid left for the capital with the warm feeling of what it means to be a team once again. A team sitting top of the league.
Over to you, Barcelona…