With Luka Modric back to playing like a Ballon d’Or winner, Real Madrid is gaining momentum in time for a run at a fourth straight Champions League title.
Modric was voted the world’s top player in December after leading Croatia to the World Cup final and helping Madrid win a third European Cup in a row.
But it seemed that the extra matches for his national team during the summer took its toll during the first half of the Spanish league season. The 33-year-old midfielder’s lack of fitness coincided with the overall malaise of Madrid.
Modric, however, has been himself over the last two weeks.
And that means that, despite no longer having Cristiano Ronaldo to count on, Madrid must be seen as a serious title contender in Europe. In the league, it trails Barcelona by 10 points.
Modric played a huge part in Madrid’s opening two goals in a 4-2 league win at Espanyol on Sunday. He dribbled into the area before his powerful shot was saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez, with the rebound falling to Karim Benzema to finish off.
Modric then spotted Sergio Ramos at the far post and curled in a cross for him to double the advantage. Modric also had another chance to score but again was denied by Lopez.
Modric started his recent strong run by scoring from distance to open a 2-1 win at Real Betis two weeks ago. He followed that up with his best match of the season in a 2-0 win over Sevilla, which saw Madrid leapfrog Sevilla into third place.
Madrid still has a handful of matches before the first leg of its Champions League round-of-16 game at Ajax on Feb. 13. This includes league games against Alaves and Atletico Madrid that will test the strength of its recovery before it faces its Dutch opponents in Europe.
But the team is playing its most impressive football under coach Santiago Solari since he replaced Julen Lopetegui at the end of October.
“Above all it is important that we have all our players back in shape and ready to play at their best,” Solari said about Madrid’s chances of lifting a trophy.
Villarreal hasn’t finished out of the top six in the league in the last five seasons, and no lower than eighth in all but two of the past 15 campaigns.
So this season’s never-ending slump, with just three wins in 21 rounds, has left its fans and players in a state of shock — and the team in the relegation zone.
“All of us have had to fight hard to play in the first division and I am not going down easily. I hope my teammates do the same,” goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo said after a humbling 3-0 loss at regional rival Valencia on Saturday.
“It is a problem of attitude. Now what we need is 11 warriors on the pitch and until we have 11 we are not going to turn this around.”