It was Real Madrid's chance to go top of the Primera Liga. Barcelona's 1-1 draw at home to Villarreal on Saturday meant Madrid would go to the summit if they beat a struggling Osasuna side away on Sunday. A team with the 17th best home record in the division who had scored just 14 goals all season. In comparison, 16 different Madrid players have netted this term. But Madrid fluffed their lines. They had been waiting patiently in the wings, winning games and maturing steadily as a unit. As Barca won everything on offer, Madrid hoped 2010 would be their year much in the same way 2009 belonged to the Catalans. What better way to confirm that belief than by heading the Primera Liga after the first game of the New Year?
Instead, Madrid were frustrated by Osasuna, the Navarrans spoiling their game plan and holding Madrid to only their second draw of the campaign. Real coach Manuel Pellegrini considered it a minor blip, as well he might. He has been a success since joining from Villarreal in the summer, steering Madrid to their best league start with 12 wins and two draws from 16 games. They remain two points behind the all-conquering Barca and six clear of Valencia in third, but can draw much encouragement from their progress under the Chilean.
Madrid began by overcoming teams without ever really convincing. Quickly assembled at great cost over the summer, they needed time to gel and were fortunate to get it. Madrid's only two league defeats came against an already established Sevilla side in the sixth game and a narrow defeat to champions Barcelona back in November. By that time, Madrid had developed a pleasing coherence and felt that they deserved a point. They'll get the chance of revenge when Barca visit the Bernabeu later in the season, no one expects the Catalans to repeat their humiliating 6-2 scoreline they inflicted last May.
Madrid have improved immeasurably since then. They are still coming together, but the football played in the games before Christmas carried the hallmarks of great Real sides of the past: beauty, passion and goals. They were resounding, energetic and confident. Beating Valencia away was hugely significant, as was smashing Real Zaragoza for six. The expensive signings have mostly been successful. Top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo is back from injury and remains their stand-out player. Lesser new names like Alvaro Arbeloa have worked. Madrid's attacking style allows him to be far more adventurous than he was at Liverpool. Another former Liverpool player, Xavi Alonso, is key in midfield, even if it means displacing Lassana Diarra to the right of midfield. Only Karim Benzema has disappointed, but fellow striker Gonzalo Higuain has improved. Of the old guard, Raul is used effectively from the bench.
With eight consecutive wins, Madrid's home record is flawless and they've scored three more goals overall than a Barca side noted for their attacking brilliance. There are numerous positive indicators, but aware that Real have yet to win anything, Pellegrini remains level-headed. He saw Juande Ramos's win 17 games from 18 in charge at one stage last season before being blown out of the water by Barca in that 6-2 game.
Pellegrini's squad look much more robust, but still not at Barca's level. They need Barca to slip up, they need their election campaign to detract from their on field excellence, they need injuries to their key players and to avoid injuries of their own. They'll be able to cope with the lengthy absence of centre-back Pepe, but not a Ronaldo or Kaka. And, simply put, Real must beat Barcelona at home.
They also need their supporters to start living up to their description. Ronaldo was correct when he pointed out last week that the fans should be more supportive and less critical. Real fans, bloated by past successes, can be a major hindrance to their side's aspirations if only because of the impossible to please expectations they have. Visiting teams know that they can frustrate the fans by holding out for as long as possible, although no visiting team have managed to achieve that this season. Intelligent fans should be tired of the quick fixes and lavish presidential promises because they have not brought stability nor success to the club in the past.
Returning club president Perez appears to have learned from his previous mistakes of meddling in team affairs, but a political club perforce creates a political mindset which coaches don't like. Pellegrini has the force of personality and talent to override minor problems, but he'll be expected to deliver a league title or Champions League crown by next season at the latest. He's capable of doing it and so are his side, but their task would be made much easier if it wasn't for Pep Guardiola's pesky Catalans down the road in Barcelona.