Real Madrid hoping to build on momentum on tough Osasuna trip

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Last season's trip to Pamplona saw Real Madrid throw in the towel in on their quest to retain the La Liga title, but a visit to Estadio El Sadar to face Osasuna almost a year on could bring much brighter fortunes for Los Blancos.

A 0-0 draw against the Basque side in January left Jose Mourinho's Madrid 15 points behind leaders Barcelona, who had a game in hand. Kaka had been sent off and the capital club struggled to create any chances against the league's bottom side without Cristiano Ronaldo. Mourinho was a defeated figure in the post-match news conference. He knew the league at that stage was out of his team's hands. He probably knew weeks before such was the gap.

This time things are much different. Los Blancos are arguably the form side in La Liga, and in Europe given their Champions League dominance, and can move level on points at the top of the table alongside Barca and city rivals Atletico -- for a few hours at least -- if they pick up maximum points against a struggling side.

It seems like a straightforward task on paper but El Sadar has not been a happy hunting ground for Madrid in recent seasons. The goalless draw there last time out typified their struggles against a side they are always expected to beat. Los Merengues may have chalked up an impressive 5-1 victory there the season before, but that result has very much been the exception rather than the rule in recent campaigns.

Madrid have won just once in their last five visits to Osasuna. Two draws, both goalless, a 1-0 defeat in June 2011 and a 2-1 defeat in 2009 have made for a miserable time against a side who love to raise their game on home soil against the big boys. This weekend will be no different.

Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty ImagesCarlo Ancelotti has struck upon a balanced side at Real Madrid.

It's the penultimate league match before the Christmas break for Madrid, with a home clash against Xativa in the Copa del Rey and trip to Valencia coming in between. It may only be against a side struggling down at the wrong end of the league table, one that Madrid will be expected to beat, but three points in the type of match in which Madrid have sloppily let points drop in recent times would lay down a real marker for their title credentials this season.

Even in times of struggle over the past 18 months, Los Blancos have managed to raise their game for the big matches. The Clasico games, trips to the Mestalla have all brought good performances even when the chips were down. Atleti have caused big problems in their last two trips to the Bernabeu, in their 1-0 league win this season and cup final success last term, but on the whole performances on the big stage have not been too shabby. It's been in the "bread and butter" games, the games Madrid are big favourites to win, where there have been problems.

So a solid victory at Osasuna on Saturday would send out a message to Madrid's title rivals that this side, under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti, is made of sterner stuff. This side won't be 15 points behind the league leaders when the league resumes in January. They could be joint top.

Some called Madrid out of the title race after the 2-1 Clasico defeat at the Camp Nou earlier this season. Six points may only seem like a short gap to plug, but in La Liga every point counts. The way Barca had started the season the odds on them dropping many points at all before the end of the season would have been short. But Madrid now has the momentum. Five league wins since that defeat. Twenty-four goals scored and with arguably the best player on the planet at the top of his game. Madrid will be desperate to take that momentum into the break and keep the pressure firmly on their Catalan rivals, and of course their neighbours from the Manzanares.

David Ramos/Getty ImagesDespite Osasuna's struggles, El Sadar stadium hasn't been the friendliest ground for Real Madrid.

Osasuna have typically used this game to give their season a boost. Bottom last season, even a lacklustre 0-0 draw against the 10 men of Madrid, without Ronaldo, gave them a much-needed shot in the arm and a positive result on home soil this season would come just at the right time. A cup final-type game it may be for the men from Pamplona. While Madrid will want to cruise through the game in an ideal world, they'll have done their research -- they know what to expect.

But Javi Gracia's men are goal-shy this season. They may sit just outside the relegation zone but just 11 goals all season, the lowest in La Liga, and six on home soil, tells its own story. Madrid will welcome Sergio Ramos back after he served a suspension in Europe in midweek and Los Blancos make the trip north on the back of keeping clean sheets in three straight matches -- the first time they have achieved that in a whopping 124 games. The odds are firmly in favour of the visitors.

Ronaldo will also make his La Liga return from injury and will aim to continue the top form that has made him favourite for the Ballon d'Or. The Portuguese has been absent with a thigh injury but returned against Copenhagen to score and set a new record in the Champions League group stages with nine goals. Madrid struggled to create chances in Pamplona last season but they should have few problems this time.

Saturday's match may not be a La Liga blockbuster for the neutral but it'll certainly be a big one for Osasuna and Madrid in their respective campaigns.

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