It should have been a celebration of the Spanish Cup's homecoming and a send-off ahead of Real Madrid's Champions League semi-final second leg at the Camp Nou tomorrow night; instead it was a wake.
It was hard to imagine that just 10 days earlier Real Madrid had beaten Barcelona to win the Copa del Rey. Leo Messi's brilliance and Jose Mourinho's war with Uefa had long since taken all the air out of those party balloons and when Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos brought the cup out to show the fans at the start of the game they could hardly get it over with quickly enough.
Ramos at least managed not to drop the trophy this time but the presentation could not have been less enthusiastic. Both players hurried on, raised the silverware and hurried off, while in the rain-soaked stands, where there were almost as many empty blue seats as flag-waving fans, only mild appreciation was shown.
The banners draped around the Bernabeu proclaimed "We are with you until the end Mourinho" but with Barcelona due to kick off immediately after and needing only four points to claim the league title it felt like the end was already upon them. Mourinho fielded only four of his customary first-choice XI and though the reserves gave completely underwhelming performances almost to a man, it was two of his trusted lieutenants who actually cost him the points.
Iker Casillas charged out of his goal and kicked fresh air on 40 minutes to allow Angel Lafita to put Zaragoza 1-0 up. Then defender Ricardo Carvalho barged Lafita over in the area and Gabi made it 2-0 from the spot.
The rain had eased but now there was a new dark cloud on the horizon – a Madrid defeat and a Barça win and Mourinho's side would be 11 points behind the leaders with four games left.
Behind the goal Mourinho's name was sung, but from the less radical sections of the home support the team's lack of thrust and direction was met with whistles, and from his glass-encased VIP box Cristiano Ronaldo looked down on the defeat accompanied by girlfriend Irina Shayk. Both Real Madrid's defeats this season have come with Ronaldo not in the side and the wisdom of resting him will only be known after tomorrow's second leg in Barcelona.
Mourinho threw on two more of the players he had hoped to rest ahead of that game, Marcelo and Angel Di Maria, with the former taking to the field with a folded piece of paper that was passed first to Pepe and then to Granero. "We had made two changes and it was just a couple of instructions," said Mourinho afterwards.
No sooner had Granero read the note than Zaragoza's second goal went in. And five minutes later he was taken off. Nothing was working for Mourinho who saw Ramos pull a goal back with a header from Mesut Ozil's corner only for Lafita to race away and make it 3-1.
Karim Benzema cut the deficit on 84 minutes – was this Madrid practising for tomorrow's comeback? No, was the answer. Carvalho became the 10th Real Madrid player to be sent off this season just a minute later, and Zaragoza held on comfortably against the 10 men.
"When one team goes into the game mentally prepared and the other doesn't, you see the difference and the fact that my team did not go into the game well is my fault," said Mourinho. There really was no one else to blame.
Whether watching Barcelona lose immediately afterwards would have made him feel better or worse is difficult to gauge. Knowing a Real Madrid win would have closed the gap to five points will perhaps have made him regret leaving out Ronaldo.
But Barça's tired capitulation and injuries to two more of their defenders will have reminded him that all that matters now is the Champions League and the faint hope that amidst the end of season gloom he can find in his players one more big performance.
Real Madrid (4-4-2): Casillas, Ramos, Garay, Carvalho, Nacho (Marcelo, 52), Granero (Ozil, 59), Pepe, Canales (Di Maria, 52), Kaka, Higuain, Benzema.
Booked Di Maria.Sent off Carvalho (87).
Real Zaragoza (5-4-): Doblas, Diogo, Da Silva, Jarosik, Lanzaro, Obradovic (Paredes, 46), Lopez, Gabi, Ponzio, Lafita (N'Daw), Uche.
Booked Jarosik, Jorge Lopez, Doblas, Diogo.Reuse content