Real Madrid wasn’t supposed to still be this good after losing its top scorer this summer and being decimated by injuries.
But in came Jude Bellingham and the England midfielder has kept Madrid on course to compete for titles this season.
Madrid is leading the Spanish league and is the only team other than Manchester City to have won all five of its games in the Champions League.
The key to the ongoing success of the 14-time European Cup winner can be boiled down to the depth and overall talent of its squad, and the incredible impact that Bellingham has made since arriving from Borussia Dortmund.
Bellingham led Madrid to another commanding victory on Wednesday when he scored his team-high 15th goal of the season to help beat Napoli 4-2 and remain perfect in the Champions League group stage.
Madrid is also leading the title fight in Spain, where it is in first place, level on points with Girona before hosting the relegation-threatened Granada on Saturday.
“He’s been a wonderful signing,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said about Bellingham on Wednesday, before he dug deep to find a supposed flaw in his new star. “He needs to improve his Spanish, because like I have said, nobody’s perfect.”
Madrid lost the pillars of its attack and defense when Karim Benzema, its top scorer for the five previous seasons, was lured with other European players to Saudi Arabia in June and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois tore a knee ligament just before the season kicked off in August.
Then came more season-threatening injuries. Éder Militão, the team’s best central defender, ruptured his ACL in the season opener, and Eduardo Camavinga, Madrid’s most versatile midfielder, tore a knee ligament while training with France this month.
Vinícius Júnior also went down during the most recent international break when he tore a leg muscle with Brazil, an injury that will keep him out of action for the remainder of the year.
Toss in minor injuries to Kepa Arrizabalaga, who came in to replace Courtois, veteran leader Luka Modric, and starting holding midfielder Aurelien Tchouaméni, and it seems Madrid should have struggled against Serie A champion Napoli.
Instead, it rolled over the Italian club just like most of its rivals this campaign. Its only loss this season came at Atletico Madrid in the domestic league in September.
Bellingham leads the Spanish league with 11 goals, two more than Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann.
Madrid also got a boost recently from Rodrygo. The Brazil forward is on a four-game scoring streak, during which he has netted six goals as he fills the void left by injured countryman Vinícius.
“We’re all playing well. We’re scoring a lot of goals and defending well too. I think we’re at our best at the moment,” Rodrygo said after scoring in the win over Napoli.
Rodrygo finished Wednesday’s game with cramps but he said he should be fine for the game against 19th-placed Granada.
Ancelotti said that he hopes to have Modric back for a visit to Real Betis the following round.
“We can’t get anyone back for Granada, but I think that Modrić will be able to play against Betis,” he said. “We’ll prepare for the match against Granada with these players.”
Barcelona hosts Atletico on Sunday with third place on the line and the loser in danger of falling behind in the title chase. The two are tied at four points behind Madrid and Girona, which hosts Valencia on Saturday.
Atletico also has a game in hand to play.
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