By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Five games, five wins, 13 goals and none conceded. Real Madrid's superb start to 2014 has dispelled doubts from earlier this season: gone is the defensive disorganisation, so too the midfield imbalance and the lack of cohesion in attack, making way for a solid, structured and free-scoring side. The new year has brought with it a new Madrid - a team that looks increasingly ready to challenge for the biggest prizes.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti has survived the early-season wobbles and criticism from press and fans to sculpt a strong side which has improved gradually but continually. On Saturday, Madrid beat Betis 5-0 in some style to build on their excellent recent results and move level - albeit provisionally - with Barcelona and Atletico at the top of La Liga.
It started, as it does so often, with Cristiano Ronaldo: the Ballon d'Or winner opened the scoring with his latest golazo, a 30-yard missile fired into the top corner at incredible speed - 115 kilometres per hour to be precise. It was no wonder goalkeeper Stephan Andersen didn't even move.
And the Dane was flat-footed again as Gareth Bale made it 2-0 with a fantastic free-kick. before Karim Benzema added another (his 100th Madrid goal) after a fine run and lay-off from the outstanding Luka Modric, Angel Di Maria struck a stunner of his own with a sublime left-footed finish low into the corner from distance and substitute Alvaro Morata made it 5-0 in the closing seconds after Ronaldo's overhead kick fell into his path.
Madrid's superb start to 2014
|0||Madrid haven't conceded a single goal in their five games this year.|
|5||All five of those matches have been won - against Celta Vigo, Espanyol. Osasuna (twice) and Betis.|
|7||Seven different players have scored for Madrid in 2014.|
|13||In total, Ancelotti's men have hit 13 goals in their five games this year.|
|100||Karim Benzema has now netted 100 goals (in 210 games) for Los Blancos.|
|500||Ancelotti has now won 500 games as coach in his time in Italy, England, France and Spain (in 878 matches).|
With the 500th win of his coaching career, Ancelotti continues to make his mark on this Madrid - and they appear to be coming good just when it matters most.
"We should be happy," the Italian said afterwards. "All of the players performed with great concentration - especially at the beginning. We'll sleep well tonight."
With 20 games played, Madrid now have 50 points, the same as Barca and Atleti, with the Catalans in action at Levante on Sunday evening and Diego Simeone's side at home to Sevilla straight afterwards.
"Over to you, Messi" screamed Sport on their front page on Sunday, urging the Argentine to inspire his side and keep Madrid at bay in the race for the title. With los Blancos back on form and Neymar now sidelined, Leo's return is a big boost.
Not so long ago, Madrid were six points off the pace and then, only last weekend, five back. But the draw between Barca and Atleti in the 19th round saw Ancelotti's side move right back into contention. And their win on Saturday now means there is no margin for error at all at the top of the table.
The return of Xabi Alonso in midfield has seen Real regain the balance they were lacking earlier on in the campaign, while Modric has gone from strength to strength alongside the Basque midfielder. "His work was excellent," Ancelotti said of the Croat after the game.
Meanwhile, Modric's former Tottenham team-mate Bale was back among the goals after almost two months without scoring and Di Maria's recent problems now seem to have been forgotten as well. The Argentine produced a typically energetic performance, popping up in central midfield and on the flank and adding another great goal. Sulky and sullen just a couple of weeks ago, the former Benfica man is back on board and working for the team.
And then there's the defence. Still missing the injured Raphael Varane, Madrid's back line looks much more concentrated than in recent months and remains unpenetrated in 2014, with Pepe and Sergio Ramos forming an impressive partnership, Marcelo adding discipline to his game and Dani Carvajal improving in the right-back role.
The spectacular football promised by Ancelotti at his unveiling may not be a reality in every game just yet, but recent results have shown this Madrid side are now extremely effective. And if the club can continue on the same path in the coming months, 2014 just may be their year.
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