By Sam Lee
The dust has finally settled on that defeat against Barcelona at the end of last month, and, for the time being at least, it’s business as usual at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Real Madrid, with three wins from the three games that followed the 5-0 humbling at the Nou Camp, are on the road to recovery and are looking like their old selves once more.
Of course they are. This is the Madrid team that is better than everybody else in the league, barring old rivals Barca. They needed to recover and recover quickly, and that is exactly what they have done. Valencia were the first team in their sights, and although it took two late Cristiano Ronaldo goals that came after David Albelda was controversially sent off, los Che quickly became the biggest domestic scalp of the Jose Mourinho era.
A 4-0 rout over Auxerre in a Champions League dead rubber and a routine 3-1 stroll away in Zaragoza later, Madrid are back in the hunt for the la liga title and are out for revenge.
But it’s not all going Madrid’s, or should that be Mourinho’s, way. Gonzalo Higuain was ruled out of el clasico with what turned out to be a slipped disc, but with doctors umming and ahhing over which course of treatment should be administered to the Argentine, nobody is quite sure how long he will be out of action. Some say a matter of weeks after some rest and light treatment, some say months after surgery. One thing that is for sure, is that Mourinho’s pre-season claims that the club needed to bring in an extra striker in the case of injury to one of Higuain or Karim Benzema now looks justified.
Benzema may have taken a step or two forward with an impressive hat-trick against Auxerre, but he could well be back where he started, or worse, if Mourinho’s body language during last Sunday’s trip to La Romareda is anything to go by. After spurning a reasonable chance early on, Mourinho was visibly angry with the French striker. Whether that set the tone for the rest of the evening is unclear, but the Portuguese coach did need to receive treatment from the club’s doctor after banging his head on the dug-out after a later outburst.
But Mourinho’s biggest headache is this need for another striker. For all the manager’s insistence on bringing in a target man, the club’s powerful board members remain unconvinced. In any case, quality strikers are in short supply at the moment, and of those few there are a number who cannot or will not sign for Madrid. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on loan at Milan from Barcelona, is not allowed to join the club, even if he wanted to, due to a clause in his contract, while Samuel Eto’o, despite having worked with Mourinho at Inter, may be reluctant to move back to the club that so readily let him go all those years ago. Even if a suitable target is identified (Carlos Tevez wants out at Manchester City and could be a viable option), they would be more-than-likely already be registered for European competition with their current clubs, and therefore ineligible to play in the Champions League, Madrid’s holy grail.
Thanks to Friday’s Round of 16 Champions League draw, Madrid will have the opportunity to dish out a little bit of revenge long before May comes around. Drawn against French side Olympique Lyonnais, the side who knocked them out in this round last season, Madrid have been given the perfect opportunity to spark their knock-out stage campaign into life from the offset. Lyon, always the bridesmaid of European football (and lucky to be that, if we’re honest), have overachieved in recent seasons, notably by reaching last season’s semi-finals, but hold a very credible record over Madrid. In fact, in the six meetings between the clubs in the competition, Madrid have never won, with the French side running out victors in three games, and the other three ending in a draw.
With the distinct possibility that Higuain will still be out of action come the first leg in the Stade Gerland at the end of February, Benzema will have the opportunity to prove his worth to Madrid against his former club, and he will probably have to do just that.
Defeat would mean failure to reach the quarter-finals for the seventh consecutive season; unforgivable considering the addition of Mourinho and the amount of money spent in trying to build a great Madrid team once again. And should Barca go on to take a third-consecutive league title, fingers will be pointed in the Bernabeu boardroom.
For now, everything seems to be falling back into place domestically. On Sunday, troubled Sevilla, with five losses in their last six games, make the trip to the capital and will almost certainly be swept aside like everybody else before them. After that, Madrid host paupers Levante.
With Barcelona travelling to rivals Espanyol on Saturday before hosting the ever-tricky Athletic Bilbao next weekend, there is always a chance that Madrid could find themselves top of the tree once more come the winter break.
The road to recovery has run as smoothly as possible so far, and there don’t appear to be any potholes in the near future. But trickier tests lie just around the corner for Madrid, and they will need everything on their side if they are to go the distance this season.