Real Madrid back to full steam ahead of Club World Cup

Club president and coach vindicated with string of victories after early-season struggles, writes Andy Mitten

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo scores a penalty kick during the Uefa Champions League Group B match against Ludogorets at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on December 9, 2014. Susana Vera / Reuters
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MADRID // If Carlo Ancelotti was anxious during Real Madrid’s early-season wobbles, the Italian coach did not show it.

The European champions were defeated in consecutive weeks at the beginning of the season, losing 4-2 at Real Sociedad and 2-1 at home to reigning champions Atletico Madrid, who had also beaten them in the Spanish Super Cup.

Madrid came under fire, with goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas describing events as “horrible”. To compound matters, Barcelona were winning every game under new manager Luis Enrique and enjoyed an early six-point lead.

Critics brayed at Madrid’s misfortune, with claims of a crisis at the Bernabeu. Such allegations were partly valid, after club president Florentino Perez was criticised by his own fans for selling Angel Di Maria to Manchester United and Xabi Alonso to Bayern Munich.

Opinion formers said Di Maria had been sold because he did not sell enough shirts. Style, they said, was triumphing over substance and Madrid had lost the panache to win matches.

Perez said little; Ancelotti said he could not understand why anyone was anxious.

They had won the Uefa Champions League less than 100 days earlier and would let results do the talking, but the Italian’s position was uncertain at a club that has used 25 managers in the last 25 years.

Reliable sources indicated that Perez might want to make a change, but he stuck by his coach and the decision appears vindicated.

Starting with an 8-2 victory at Deportivo La Coruna on September 20, Madrid began a winning run that, 19 games later, has not stopped.

Ancelotti’s side have leapfrogged Barcelona at the top and won all six Champions League games, including a demolition of Liverpool at Anfield. They bested Barca 3-1, the first time Madrid beat the Catalans by two clear goals since 2008.

Cristiano Ronaldo has scored a staggering 30 goals in 22 games, with 23 coming in only 13 league games. In their relentless progress, Madrid have hit rivals for four goals or more on 11 occasions.

Ronaldo is on target to win another Pichichi award as the top goalscorer and to be named World Player of the Year for 2014. His strike foil, Karim Benzema, has scored 13 and won over any remaining critics, while Gareth Bale has eight goals.

Madrid are the best team in the world at the moment. Ancelotti lost those early games, but he had to assimilate new signings James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. Casillas, the captain, was not finished, as suggested after a poor World Cup, and remains No 1, with Costa Rica's Keylor Navas the No 2 keeper.

It did not take Ancelotti long to get Madrid’s machine working back on full power. Their football is slick, entertaining and dominating. They have top players in every position.

Manchester United, who once sniffed at Madrid’s idea of paying top money for fully formed star players, are now trying to emulate Madrid’s position by having elite players in every role.

Madrid hope to finish a wonderful year best remembered for winning the much-anticipated decima by becoming world champions in Morocco on December 20. As Barcelona end 2014 without a trophy, Madrid have already won the Copa del Rey, European Super Cup and a 10th European Cup, which earned them a semi-final spot in the Fifa Club World Cup in Rabat on Tuesday, against the winners of the match between Mexican side Cruz Azul and Western Sydney Wanderers.

That pair meet in Rabat on Saturday, representing a remarkable rise for an Australian side who were founded two-and-a-half years ago. They beat Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in the Asian Champions League (ACL) final, becoming the first Australian side to win the trophy.

They did it the hard way, defeating defending J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, defending Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande and last season’s ACL runners-up, FC Seoul, on the way to the final. If the Wanderers beat the Mexicans, then Madrid await.

Argentina’s San Lorenzo are the favourites from the other side of the draw, while Madrid are the obvious top pick overall in a competition won by European clubs in seven of the last eight seasons.

Madrid also expect to be well-supported by their fans, because Rabat, like Lisbon, the venue of the Champions League final, is about an hour’s flight from the Spanish capital.

Fortune has favoured this brilliant Madrid team more than once this year, but they are making their own luck.

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