'English Patient' is beating heart of Madrid's defence

Jonathan Woodgate has a chance to prove his talents against Arsenal tonight. He talks to Jack Rashleigh in Madrid about the importance of keeping clean sheets
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The Independent Football

Jonathan Woodgate is not a defender who goes to ground easily. The weight of a £14m transfer tag around his neck, he spent his first 15 months at Real Madrid on the treatment table, in the operating theatre and then finally on the training ground doing lap after mind-numbing lap to rehabilitate his left thigh muscle. When the player the Spanish labelled "The English Patient" finally got to make his long-awaited debut, he scored an own goal and was sent off. But he is still standing.

And tonight he will be in the middle of Real Madrid's defence in the biggest game in the club's season so far - against Arsenal in the Champions' League.

He says: "I remember, after five months out, one reporter said that I was going to Germany because my career was over and I was thinking, 'What is this person on about? He hasn't even seen me'. You get people making assumptions but it's stupid because if you see the right people and do the right work you are going to get back in the end."

But Woodgate is not just back in the team, he is a vital part of it - one of the first names on the manager Juan Ramon Lopez Caro's team sheet and the boss of a defence that after years of being the weakest part of the side is now, with Woodgate organising it, a solid base.

Real Madrid have kept 10 clean sheets in the 13 games that Woodgate has played this season. He was rested recently for a cup semi-final first-leg and in his absence the defence leaked six goals.

"At Madrid everyone just 'bombs on'," he says of the side's cavalier approach to most games. "That means it is harder to be a defender here, but you just have to be more organised. I don't mind it, if you organise people around you and they listen to you and if everyone moves together and defends together you are going to succeed. I love keeping clean sheets.

"I think English defenders are good. Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Ledley King and myself - all top English players at top clubs. I think the English way of defending is great - we have the 'defend-for your-life' mentality."

Woodgate has impressed everyone who has come into contact with him at Madrid. The Real coach Lopez Carro said: "He has come through a very difficult time and he is now competing very well for us. I am very pleased with him."

The praise even extends to those who have lost their place to him. Ivan Helguera passes him as he holds court at Real Madrid's training ground and pats him on the back. And there is a wink and a smile from the Brazilian full-back Cicinho.

"Woody" is too popular to be disliked for the success he is suddenly enjoying.

"I wouldn't say I'm the boss," he says, "but I would say I do like to lead. And obviously if we are keeping clean sheets everyone is happy and no one minds me ordering them around. I'm not going to join a team and stand there with my mouth shut saying nothing. It's my job. You go on the field and everyone else is a normal player like you are, so you have to tell them what to do. It benefits the team."

Alongside him is Sergio Ramos, a 19-year-old summer signing from Seville who cost €23m (£15.7m) and has been earmarked as the Englishman's long-term partner. Ramos makes his fair share of mistakes in the centre of defence but has a formidable combination of speed and strength that means he is nearly always able to redeem himself. He will partner Woodgate as they endeavour to nullify the threat of Thierry Henry.

Of his team-mate, who can often be seen climbing over Woodgate when the pair go up for corners, he jokes: "I can't believe he is only 19. His physical condition is second to none - although I do wish he would stop taking headers off me, he's all over the gaff."

Against Arsenal Woodgate is not expecting the walk in the park some Madrid commentators have been predicting since the draw was made but he admits that the Gunners may be in a transitional phase.

"Everyone knows that [Patrick] Vieira was a big loss for them," he said. "When you lose someone like that it's like us losing Zidane. It's obviously not going to be good for the team."

Losing Woodgate would now be a major blow for Madrid, too. The defensive linchpin was linked with a switch back to Newcastle recently. He dismisses the story as nonsense. "I heard about it - I don't know where people get such dire information from. It would be a bit strange if Madrid had got me fit for the first time in 18 months and then wanted to sell me. This is the club for me."

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