Real Madrid have won five
straight La Liga games many times before but it is the dominant
manner of their most recent run of victories that suggests they
may be closer to ending Barcelona's three-year grip on the
Jose Mourinho's expensively-assembled side, who play at Real
Sociedad on Saturday, relied more on swift counter-attacking last season and often seemed incapable of exerting the
control that is a hallmark of their great rivals.
Lately, however, forward Cristiano Ronaldo, resurgent
playmaker Kaka, in-form strikers Karim Benzema and Gonzalo
Higuain and their team-mates have blown their opponents away in
the opening stages before shutting them out by keeping the ball
for extended periods.
All four of their goals in last weekend's win at Malaga came
in the first half, as did all three in Wednesday's 3-0 success
at home to Villarreal. They have netted 21 goals on their run of
five victories, conceding only three, and are a point clear of
Barca after nine matches.
"We are increasingly able to control games and we are
reading them better all the time," said midfielder Xabi Alonso,
who dictates play in the central areas much like his Spain team
mate Xavi of Barca.
"Today [against Villarreal] we were able to mix some swift
attacks with holding on to the ball and knowing how to interpret
the game," the former Liverpool player told reporters.
"This means the team is continuing to grow and that's a good
sign. The team is ambitious and will continue to do things
better. We cannot simply rest on our laurels."
Under normal circumstances Real would be top of the
standings but a remarkable run by Levante, who play at Osasuna
on Sunday, has lifted them a point clear of the Madrid
club and two ahead of Barca.
The tiny Valencia-based side, who lead La Liga for the first
time in their 102-year history, have an annual budget of around
20 million euros, one of the smallest in La Liga
and minimal compared with Real's of just under 500 million.
Under coach Juan Ignacio Martinez, who is making his debut
in the top flight, they are unbeaten this term and have put
together an unlikely run of seven victories, including a shock
1-0 home win over Real last month.
"We are the team to beat right now," Ruben Suarez, who
scored a powerful stoppage-time free-kick to secure a 3-2 win at
home to Real Sociedad on Wednesday, told reporters.
"We have only played nine games of course but we are top and
people want to get one over on us now," added the 32-year-old,
one of a slew of players in Levante's squad who are over 30.
Barca, bidding for a club record-equalling four straight
titles, had mixed news on the injury front ahead of their game
at home to Real Mallorca on Saturday.
Pedro has been ruled out for up to three weeks after
twisting his left ankle in Tuesday's 1-0 win at Granada, while
his fellow forward Alexis Sanchez trained with the squad for the
first time since damaging a hamstring on September 10.
Central defenders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are back in
full training after injury.
Barca's World Player of the Year Lionel Messi has not scored
for three games in all competitions, a drought by his high
standards that has prompted questions about his form.
"If there are doubts about Messi then I don't know what they
think about the rest of us," midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who came
through Barca's youth academy with the Argentine forward, told a
"I've never played with a player like him, either at youth
level or professionally," the former Arsenal captain added.
"He's humble, never hides, always gives everything for the
team, and loves the club. There's nothing more to say."
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