By Sam Lee
Things are starting to look up for Real Madrid. It wasn’t long ago that the club were drawing blanks with la Liga’s lesser lights, Cristiano Ronaldo was the most wasteful player in the division and whistles and jeers greeted the last blow of the referee’s whistle.
But in the space of 180 minutes Jose Mourinho’s side have scored 10 goals, Ronaldo has powered his way to the top of the Pichichi (and claims the most assists, too), while the final whistle on Saturday evening saw the capital club sit atop la Liga.
Another player in the line of fire for the overzealous critics was Gonzalo Higuain (photo), but, just like (or should that be because of?) Ronaldo, he too has hit a rich vein of form with three goals and two assists in his last two outings.
And it doesn’t end there. Mesut Ozil, one of the bargain buys of the summer, considering how much Madrid usually spend on their attackers, has procured two goals for his team mates and scored once in the games against Deportivo la Coruna and Malaga, while left-back Marcelo enjoyed another fine game on Saturday night in light of the recent praise from his manager.
“Marcelo now has offensive quality and defensively he is growing. I didn’t like anything about Marcelo when I arrived because I thought he could do everything but defend but now I am a lover of his,” Mourinho said, rather affectionately, of the player earlier this month.
The early-season problems were always more to do with wastefulness from the strikers than any inherent flaws in Mourinho’s system, with very few, if any, defensive concerns. Of course, they don’t much care for all that business around the Santiago Bernabeu, but Mourinho’s successes have always relied on a solid foundation that ensures that points will be won even when things aren’t going right at the other end. Now that the attackers have started to click as expected, the Madrid machine is threatening to kick into overdrive.
And that is why Villareal failing to beat Hercules, always the team for the big occasion, is such bad news for the rest of la Liga. With a win at the José Rico Pérez (that is the name of the stadium, honest) the Yellow Submarines would have gone top of the table for the first time in their history but, more importantly for those of us who want a bit of variety at the thin end of the league, would have held off the Madrid-Barcelona breakaway for another week at least.
As it is, the crazy 2-2 draw in Alicante, a game that also produced three red cards, sees Real a point clear of Villareal, Barcelona and Valencia. After a fairly lacklustre start to the season, they seem to be building up a head of steam just at the right time.
And that’s fortunate for them, because just as they come out of one test they’re faced with an even bigger one.
As the Madrid flag was firmly rammed into the ground at the table’s summit, the Galacticos (and Karim Benzema) must turn their attentions to the very real threat of an AC Milan side that are scaling the mountain at some speed. It may not be a must-win game at the Bernabeu when the two sides meet in the Champions League on Tuesday, but Mourinho will be keen to get a good result against the side that triumphed on the sacred turf just under a year ago. That 3-2 win for Milan heaped a lot of early pressure on to former Madrid boss Manuel Pellegrini, pressure that he never managed to relieve.
That meeting saw Alexandre Pato bag two goals, including a late winner, and the Brazilian striker comes into the match having scored another brace at the weekend against Chievo, and two goals in two games for his country during the International break.
If that wasn’t enough, Madrid welcome back Robinho, the striker they flogged to Manchester City for getting ideas way above his station (he also scored at the weekend), and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man who came off the bench to score the winner in last season’s Clasico at the Nou Camp.
Oh, and Ronaldinho, the man who has scored 6 goals in ten matches against Madrid.
A home win would see Mourinho’s side stamp their authority all over the Champions League opposition just as they appear to be doing to their domestic rivals, and, as history has shown, Mourinho and Madrid don’t make a habit of giving up the top spot easily.