A jubilant January but tougher month lies ahead for Madrid

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Eight matches, eight wins. Seventeen goals scored, none conceded. Real Madrid wrapped up their perfect January with a 1-0 victory over Espanyol on Tuesday night to progress to the semifinals of the Copa del Rey, but they know a tougher month lies ahead in February.

Madrid have been unstoppable since the turn of the year, easing their way through the cup and closing the gap on La Liga leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo scooped the Ballon d'Or, goalkeepers Diego Lopez and Iker Casillas have bagged records, Karim Benzema is scoring goals, Jese Rodriguez is ever improving and Angel di Maria has gone from zero to hero with his new role in Carlo Ancelotti's 4-3-3. Things are looking good at the Bernabeu.

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But while Los Blancos' form and results have been superb in January, the true tests will come next month -- and they'll come thick and fast.

Celta Vigo, Osasuna, Espanyol, Betis and Granada were the sides put to the sword by Madrid last month. Sides that are capable of causing problems but sides that won't be troubling the top six this season. Ancelotti's men would be expected to claim victory over all five, with all due respect. Job done, then.

The real hard work, and the games that will really decide just where the trophies are heading this season, will come in February. Madrid's jubilant January has certainly helped to prepare them. Confidence will be sky high at the Bernabeu. It's a good job, then, given Madrid will kick off the month with a trip to the new San Mames to take on an Athletic Bilbao side in good form of their own.

A trip to the Basque region is always a tough one for those from the capital. Athletic fans look forward to the visit of Madrid more than any other, including local rivals Real Sociedad, and they want to beat them more than any other. It means those in red and white are always pumped for the occasion, whether they be struggling at the wrong end of La Liga or up near the top. The trouble this time is that Ernesto Valverde's men are flying, in the league anyway.

Atleti inflicted a first defeat on the Basques in their brand-new stadium to book their derby date in the cup, but Athletic are riding high in fourth in La Liga. They'll be keen to mark their first clash against Los Blancos at the new stadium with three points.

It's not just Bilbao that will offer a stern test for Ancelotti's men in February, though. Madrid will go head-to-head with Atleti over two legs of the cup semifinal. Derby clashes are usually exhausting but two in the space of a week will be hugely demanding, especially with a place in the final at stake, and the small matter of revenge for last season's final loss -- Atleti beat their neighbours in their own backyard to lift the cup, and end a long-standing derby losing streak.

Los Blancos will also have a tricky test against an impressive Villarreal side at the Bernabeu and make the short trip to Getafe for another 'mini' derby at the Coliseum. Relegation-threatened Elche could offer a bit of a breather toward the end of the month, and it'll probably be needed with a trip to Germany to take on Schalke in the Champions League bringing a tough month to an end in tough fashion.

At least Madridistas know they have the squad to cope with such a schedule. Ancelotti has rotated his team with good success this month. Jese has provided great cover for Gareth Bale on the right of Madrid's three-pronged attack, and has arguably played better than the Welshman. Asier Illarramendi has looked composed when called upon in the middle, and players such as Alvaro Arbeloa, Nacho and Fabio Coentrao have been dependable at the back.

The full squad will be required this month, and there's good reason the Italian has not been keen to let any of them go in this month's transfer window. Coentrao has been heavily linked with a move to Manchester United but an outing in the cup in midweek suggests otherwise, while Alvaro Morata was also introduced from the bench. If Karim Benzema gets injured, the youngster can expect more minutes. Casemiro is the only player who could seemingly be spared, with Di Maria slotting into the middle three and Illarramendi also offering capable backup in the middle. Both Milan clubs have been linked.

Madrid have been superb in January, but February will be a different kettle of fish.


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