Suddenly the Bernabeu is enveloped in a white wave. No, not the apprehensive white of a panolada that must still be haunting Fabio Capello even when he is now in charge of a red-loving England national team, not the white of a flag raised up in surrender, but as both AS and Marca put it, the white of a “white Christmas”. Optimism is booming in Madrid.
Because Real Madrid are 7 points clear the top in La Liga, because Real are the Winter Champions this season, because they comprehensively vanquished FC Barcelona and all those lofty ideals of democracy, freedom and autonomy that string themselves to the Catalan giants 1-0 at Camp Nou. Because los Merengues have one hand stroking the face of La Liga trophy. Because there is no incoherence in the dressing room unlike last season and unlike at Barcelona where the situation appears to be worsening all the time. Because Bernd Schuster has the Bernabeu believing again.
This time it’s real, the Spanish championship title mistress certainly looks to be opening her pores to Real Madrid. Italian worshipper of “boring” football Fabio Capello might have wrestled the league from Barcelona’s grasp last season and convinced the title-whore to sleep at the Bernabeu after three heavily limping years but he did that only with sex and no love. The Madridistas want love and sex in equal proportion, silk and steel in equal dose. Although Schuster hasn’t been quite able to get the mixture right, at least there’s some affection along with passion in bed these days. And it’s only a matter of time before that affection metamorphoses into love.
Yet there were bumps on the way. The same old doubts on defensive cohesion and fluidity cropped up in the very first match of the season when Real narrowly, and some would suggest undeservingly, killed off their cross-city rivals Atletico Madrid 2-1 at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Real fell behind as early as the first minute and requited an 80th minute deflected Wesley Sneijder shot to bag all 3 points. Schuster’s men did stab Villarreal all over the place in their 5-0 victory at El Madrigal in the very next match with Sneijder playing the game of his life donning the Number 23 shirt and convincing everyone that he can better David Beckham, but as the season progressed Real didn’t look too comfortable or too entertaining.
Real Madrid might have lost just twice in the 17 league matches that they have played so far this season but both defeats dragged out old skeletons and suspicions by their hair from the closet. Detractors began to doubt on President Ramon Calderon’s wisdom to appoint Schuster as the team’s coach. Against Getafe, the side Schuster waved goodbye as soon as Real came calling, los Merengues played their worst game of the season and had there been no Iker Casillas in a pair of gloves between the sticks, they would’ve lost by three or four instead of one goal. The familiar tale of defenders caught either napping or flatfooted, of midfielders unable to eke out enough space and of strikers being failed of any supply was repeated against Espanyol, Real’s only other conquerors this season.
Yes, Real haven’t played the fantasy galactico football Calderon promised at the start of the season, have had to plough it long and hard at times against lesser sides such as Real Murcia, Deportivo la Coruna and Valladolid, have had to wait till the ultimate match in the group stage in the UEFA Champions League to confirm their berth in the knockout stages. Yet there’s no denying the fact that they deserve to be where they are at the moment: the pole position of La Liga.
Real Madrid have the perfect home record in the league with 8 wins out of 8 matches and also boast the best record away from home where in spite of two defeats, have amassed 17 points. They average over 2 goals per game, have a goal difference of +23 and have been at the positive end of a 5-1 goal fiesta at Valencia in October.
Even the defence, which in previous years had gleefully invited opposition strikers and led them by the hand to Casillas’ goal, has improved immensely. Saint Iker has had to make 67 saves in 17 matches, just under 4 saves per match and that is a wonder. Fabio Cannavaro finally appears to play solidly and sensibly, Pepe as he demonstrated against Barcelona in el clasico is worth the â‚¬30 million that Real thrust into FC Porto’s hands to get his service, Sergio Ramos is the best right back in Spain at the moment and Miguel Torres, Marcelo, Royston Drenthe and Gabriel Heinze all are embarrassment of riches for Schuster for the left back position.
The lack of a Zinedine Zidane-esque creative playmaker in the centre of the park still hurts and reasons for the dearth of creativity and fluidity in this star-studded Real Madrid squad. But that void has been partly filled by Guti and Julio Cesar Baptista alternately while Sneijder on either the right or left of Real’s midfield is certainly worth the â‚¬27 million that Ajax took off Real in the summer. Mahamadou Diarra has once again established himself in the first team and is a rock in midfield while Robinho’s consistency has revived comparisons with Pele.
Upfront Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy are the best strike pair in La Liga with each having scored 8 times in the league with a further 7 goals between them in the Champions League. While van Nisterooy remains the most reliable striker in the Spanish first division as far as goals are concerned and is well on his way to garnering yet another Pichichi award, Schuster’s insistence on playing Raul closer to goal than he did last season under Capello has reaped dividends. The Raul of the second half of last season was working hard but still not getting the goals but this season he has been such a reinvented figure that there is already enough pressure on Spain coach Luis Aragones to include the Madrileno in his Euro 2008 plans.
Real Madrid aren’t a side with a singsong rhythm and aren’t playing the most entertaining football; instead they are a side whose smoothness is often absent, who are the most effective football team in La Liga, the best Spanish bet to win the Champions League this season and the one with very few defects. The likes of Arjen Robben and Gonzalo Higuain are only just recovering from injuries and Javier Pedro Saviola and Fernando Gago are yet to be given a healthy run of matches.
With several star names yet to announce their introduction fully to the Bernabeu, Real Madrid are truly in an enviable position. For long Schuster had struggled to pick his best XI but now he is gradually settling into the mode. The pieces are fitting themselves together in the jigsaw and there’s every reason in the world to believe that Real Madrid would not only win silverwares this season but win them in style.