Real Madrid Promise A White Christmas

For many, the Christmas holiday is an occasion very happily celebrated by a variety of both religious and non-religious traditions. Across the world, few young boys and girls can contain their excitement with the approach of the coming festivities. But for Real Madrid, despite the warmth of family and friends, another month or so of football before the break would have probably been preferable.

It has been a tumultuous first half of the season for Los Blancos. After an exciting summer of multi-million dollar signings including two consecutive Ballon d’Or winners, the season began well enough as a neo-Galactico Madrid, once again headed by Florentino Perez, fed the football fervour in the Spanish capital with seven consecutive victories to begin the year.

While Madrid’s play was not overly convincing, it did provide flashes of brilliance; it was not yet up to Spanish standards, but the ‘Men in White’ were securing results…that is until the most expensive signing in football clutched his ankle in pain.

In their seventh victory of the season, a Champions League win against Olympique de Marseille, €96 million man Cristiano Ronaldo was felled in the box, picking up an ankle injury that would keep the Portuguese superstar out for over a month. Adding to the pressure, Madrid lost their first match after Ronaldo’s injury against Sevilla (a traditionally tricky opponent) and continued dropping points as they lost to AC Milan in the Champions League.

Unable to create chances in a lamentable goalless draw against Sporting Gijon, there were whispers that the neo-Galacticos were a failed experiment and that Florentino Perez had learned nothing from his previous experience at the head of the ‘Casa Blanca’ hierarchy. Those whispers grew into vulgar shouts for resignation when Madrid lost embarrassingly to Segunda B side Alcoron in an historic 4-0 drubbing that almost took the wheels off of the entire Madrid organization.

But where Florentino Perez of a few years ago might have sacked coach Manuel Pellegrini post haste following the loss, the new Florentino Perez stuck by his man. After the Alcorcon disaster, the true measure of Pellegrini’s squad began to make itself evident as the Spanish giants picked themselves up and got back to their winning ways.

With Barcelona continuing to fire on all cylinders, there was still a great deal of envy among Madridistas for the velvet football that had still not developed, but there was some consolation in the fact that Los Blancos were still churning out results. In fact, for all the poor play, going into El Clasico, Madrid actually came into the Camp Nou one point better than their bitter rivals.

The Merengues may have lost to Barcelona, but from that one loss came more value than the seven victories that began the year. For the first time this season, Madrid played as a team, rather than a collection of individual and the puzzle pieces looked as if they were finally beginning to fall into place. Pellegrini’s side finished 2009 with four consecutive victories after El Clasico, two coming against quality opponents in Marseille (a Champions League win that secured top spot in the group stage) and Valencia.

Despite suffering a devastating season-ending knee injury to star defender Pepe, the team have not missed a beat as Ezequiel Garay has shown that he is more than capable of taking on the starting defensive duties. Should Madrid forego a winter signing in central defence, Garay could just earn himself a call-up to Diego Maradona’s Argentina national team for next summer’s World Cup.

Kaka, who single-handedly carried the load in some of Madrid’s preliminary matches (particularly after CR9’s injury), has been out with an injured groin since the Barcelona defeat and yet the Brazilian wizard has barely been missed as Rafael van der Vaart, who was all but dismissed from the team in the pre-season, has worked his way up the hard way by biting the bullet and winning the coach’s confidence in training.

In Saturday’s 6-0 thrashing of Zaragoza, the Dutchman scored his first two goals of the year (not counting the goal he scored in the return leg of the Copa del Rey) and drew a standing ovation from the Bernabeu crowd as he jogged off the pitch. Sweet redemption for a player who is finally being given the stage to showcase his talent.

In fact, the Dutchman could even give Kaka a run for his money for the starting attacking midfield role. At the very least, the Brazilian can take his time recovering his form as VDV has shown himself to be more than capable.

Rafa reborn

After drawing flak for his underwhelming performances at left-back (most notably, his howling errors in the loss at Sevilla), Marcelo has been reborn in his new midfield role, a stalwart defender against opposing midfielders and a creative attacker who has shown his ability to shoot and pass with both legs. His performances are beginning to get noticed as well and Dunga could have eyes for the youngster as the World Cup approaches.

After suffering a season-ending knee injury last year, Mahamadou Diarra is back to the defensive wrecking ball he was last season. Pairing with Lassana Diarra to recover possession and also skilled in distributing out of the back (not to mention Xabi Alonso’s fly-by-wire passes), Madrid’s back line has the help of some muscle in the midfield, significantly limiting the attacking threats of opposing teams.

The Malian will be missed as he heads off in January for the African Cup of Nations, but has made an optimistic return to action. Up front, Gonzalo Higuain is back to his goalscoring best and he is the team’s leading marksman with 10 goals. With his eyes on the Pichichi and having finally broken into the Argentina national team, ‘Pipita’ is beginning to grow into one of the world’s premier forwards.

After a slow start in a new country, Karim Benzema is beginning to adapt nicely to life in Spain, having begun to learn the Spanish language and reading opposing defences with improved literacy as well. Professional as always, Raul refuses to gripe over being (rightfully) relegated to the bench. ‘El Capitan’ continues to lead his side, but is recognising his diminishing role in the team when younger, faster, stronger, and frankly more skilled players are in the side. When he is needed, the No. 7 is always ready to contribute and nothing more can be asked of a man who has won the respect of even his most ardent critics.

Raul passing the baton on to Ron

Madrid were still able to win without ‘CR9’ against Valencia at La Mestalla, but the Portuguese brings an entirely different level of quality to Real Madrid much in the same way Lionel Messi brings a marked improvement to Barcelona. Since coming back from injury, Cristiano has been in spectacular form, having scored an incredible 13 goals in 12 matches. Even more impressive is how he has grown up since his Manchester United days and he now looks an entirely different player – a leader very clearly holding himself to the highest standard of all.

The 24-year-old’s work ethic in matches is abundantly clear, as he does not seem to stop until he has scored at least one goal and he can frequently be seen encouraging his teammates to push forward and catch the defence shorthanded. His only lapse in judgment occurred when he was booked for taking off his shirt after a goal and then subsequently booked again for lashing out at an overly physical defender.

That poor demonstration of professionalism drew a refreshingly humble apology from the winger and a vow not to fail his teammates or the club in such a manner again. Love him or hate him, he is beginning to mature and slowly but surely the Portuguese superstar is beginning to reform his reputation off the pitch.

As Real Madrid go into 2010, there seems to be a feeling of confidence visible throughout the whole side, from the squad to the upper levels of the organization. Despite going through the trials and tribulations associated with forming a team, Manuel Pellegrini’s system of play has finally taken hold and even with Cristiano, Kaka, or Xabi Alonso out, Los Blancos have shown that, as a fully functioning team, they have the quality players who can slot in and take care of business.

Having just begun to hit their stride, Real Madrid go into the Christmas holiday with high hopes for the new year. If they continue to put six goals past their opponents, then perhaps Madridistas will forgive the slow start. A 10th Champions League trophy in 2010 would do just fine as a late Christmas gift too. Feliz Navidad.

Cyrus C. Malek,

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