Real’s old guard behind title charge
With 17 games left to play, the nine-times European champions are sitting pretty at the top of the table, nine points clear of arch-rivals Barcelona and 15 ahead of third-placed Villarreal.
Among the new faces, Portugal centre back Pepe and Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder have made some telling contributions, but they have by no means been decisive.
Defenders Christoph Metzelder and Gabriel Heinze and former Chelsea winger Arjen Robben have spent more time in the treatment room than on the pitch. Argentine striker Javier Saviola has continued his Barcelona bench warming role while Dutch wingback Royston Drenthe has had an accident prone start to his Real career.
Instead it has been the old guard, who helped snatch the title from Barca’s grasp last season, that have been the secret to Real’s good form.
Iker Casillas has developed an aura of invincibility in goal, Ruud van Nistelrooy remains devastatingly efficient up front, Raul has recovered much of his old spark, and Brazilian trickster Robinho and the mercurial Guti are in the form of their lives.
Real may not be playing the sort of crowd-pleasing football Bernd Schuster promised at the start of the season, but there is no denying that they have been supremely effective.
An early exit from the King’s Cup has come as a blessing in disguise and the players looks fresh and sharp as the team heads into the business end of the season.
Is it Schuster that has brought the best out of these players? Has the German merely reaped the rewards of the legacy left by Fabio Capello? Or is it just that Real look so good because they have no serious rivals in Spain this season?
Simon Baskett, Madrid
PHOTO: Real Madrid’s Robinho celebrates his goal against Villarreal with Guti. Jan. 27 REUTERS/Andrea Comas