Madrid target the top for first time this season

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Three huge points will be the order of the day when Real Madrid host Granada at the Bernabeu on Saturday afternoon, but a little rubbing of salt in the wounds won't go amiss for Florentino Perez & Co., either.

Los Blancos have the chance to go top of La Liga for the first time this season with a victory over their Andalusian visitors, and, while that would continue a superb start to 2014 for Madrid, it would only add to the problems over in Catalonia in what has been a tough week for Barcelona and departing president Sandro Rosell.

Rosell, Perez's opposite number at the Camp Nou, resigned from his role with immediate effect on Thursday in light of legal proceedings surrounding Neymar 's transfer to Barca from Santos and the threats aimed at his family that came in conjunction with the case. While the latter will not be condoned, Perez might well have a wry smile on his face given Madrid's desire to sign the Brazilian superstar before he picked Catalonia. If there was such a time for this to happen, this is not it -- with Los Blancos on the crest of a wave.

In recent years, the problems have been at the Bernabeu and the waves have been rode at the Camp Nou. The tide might not have changed just yet, but it doesn't seem far off. That's why Madrid will be out to make a statement on Saturday. A victory that would send them top, for 24 hours at least, would pile more pressure on Tata Martino's side -- and Cholo Simeone's troops at Atletico Madrid, who sit joint top with Barca.

The waters are calmer at Madrid; the storm has seemingly passed. Los Blancos were last at the summit of La Liga at the end of the 2011-12 season, when Jose Mourinho guided his side to 100 points and the title -- the personal summit of his three years in the Spanish capital. After that, a downward spiral, one that seems to have been fixed by Carlo Ancelotti.

The top has evaded Madrid since then, however. Barca has held those bragging rights for the majority of weeks. Atleti is the only other side to top the table this season -- in Week 4. Even Mallorca, now in the Segunda Division, and Rayo Vallecano, currently in the relegation zone, have enjoyed their place at the top since Madrid were last there, albeit fleetingly at the start of last season. Madrid's time to pounce has come, and they'll be desperate not to disappoint.

With Atleti making the short trip across town to Vallecas to face Rayo on Sunday -- and Barca hosting Malaga straight after -- Madrid has the chance to take top spot. Those inside the club believed they could, but probably not so soon. Madrid trailed the top two by five points going into the winter break, and with the top two dropping only five points each before that break, a complete turnaround looked far off. How times change.

A stalemate when Martino's men visited the Calderon was not unexpected, but when both sides unexpectedly dropped two points each last weekend, it was. Levante held Barca and Sevilla clung on against Los Colchoneros. All this came, again, when Madrid had enjoyed a 4 p.m. kickoff in the sun on Saturday. Get the points in the bag early, and get the pressure off. There will be no complaints about the fixture scheduling in January.

Spare a thought for Granada, facing a Madrid side that could not be in much more confident mood. Six games since the turn of the year and six wins. Fourteen goals scored and none conceded. Cristiano Ronaldo received the Ballon d'Or, and all is rosy. The BBC (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano) is firing, and Los Blancos, for once, has a defence that is defending.

Madrid played the role of flat-track bully against basement-dwelling Betis last weekend, and it will be out to do the same again in front of its own fans this weekend. Ancelotti said "Granada is doing a good job. It's on a good run of form right now," but Madrid should have too much firepower for their midtable opponents.

The only blemish on Madrid's copybook so far in 2014 was the furore, in the press at least, surrounding a gesture made by Angel Di Maria when he was substituted in the 3-0 victory over Celta Vigo in the first game back after the break. The Argentine was left out of the cup match that followed against Osasuna on home soil, so this weekend's match will be the first at the Bernabeu since the former Benfica man was put in the spotlight -- and he'll start.

Instead of being driven out of the club, Di Maria has actually played his way into a more regular starting role in Ancelotti's 4-3-3 setup. The Italian admitted that it's hard for Isco to get regular matches in the new-look lineup, giving the Argentine the chance for more minutes -- and he's not letting anyone down. He'll line up alongside Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric in the middle three, with his work rate and attacking ability suiting the role down to the ground. He should be leaving the pitch to cheers, and not jeers, this time.

Expectations will be high at the Bernabeu this weekend. They always are, but Madrid are close to top gear at the moment, and they'll be keen to give themselves every chance of finishing the weekend top of the table, too. That would require slip-ups elsewhere, but just look at last weekend.

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