Woodgate ready to start repaying Real's patience

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"He's been training well, he's come through six or seven training games and I hope he can help us out by playing a good game," Wanderley Luxemburgo, the Real coach, said yesterday when he announced his squad for the La Liga match.

"He's very excited about it and the signs are all good," Luxemburgo added. "Life is full of risks and dangers but we all think he's in good shape. We've got very high hopes for him and I think he's ready for it."

As for Woodgate himself, even before he knew he would be starting his first game for the nine-times European champions, he said he could hardly wait to get back into action.

"I'm probably the hungriest man ever to play football," he said. "I've won nothing in my career and I just want to get back playing.

"The club paid a lot of money for me and I just want to pay a bit back now by staying fit for the rest of the season and bring some titles to Madrid - it's the least I can do."

Woodgate's last League appearance was in April 2004 when he played for Newcastle United in their 2-1 win over Chelsea at St James' Park. The England international limped off the pitch in the final minutes with a torn thigh muscle.

The injury ruled him out of Euro 2004, but while he was undergoing specialist treatment in Germany he received the news that Real Madrid wanted to sign him.

Real, looking to boost their much-maligned defence with a powerful centre-back, decided to go through with the £13m signing despite the concerns about his injury and made optimistic noises about how quickly they believed he would recover.

However, what had at first appeared to be a straight forward muscle tear developed into what Woodgate himself describes as a "complete nightmare" as he experienced a succession of setbacks and a serious recurrence of the injury just before he was due to make his debut last October.

Despite assurances from the club that Woodgate would reappear before the end of the year, the former Leeds United defender did not play for the rest of the season. Instead, he underwent a battery of specialised tests, months of intensive treatment and a personalised recovery programme that kept him in Madrid throughout the summer while the rest of the team were away on holiday.

Woodgate missed Real's pre-season tour of the United States and the Far East in order to continue his rehabilitation, but finally joined up with his team-mates at their pre-season training camp in Austria.

He gradually resumed full-scale training and was given a warm reception by Real Madrid fans when he finally went on for a token five-minute spell at the end of their pre-season friendly against the Major League All-Stars at the Bernabeu last month.

After their experiences of last season, Real have been unwilling to take any risks with their investment and have put Woodgate through his paces in a series of practice matches against various youth teams before deciding to call him up into the squad.

They even decided to cover their backs by splashing out £18m on buying 19-year-old Spanish international defender Sergio Ramos from his contract at Seville, adding further to the competition that Woodgate will face in his battle for a first-team place.

In the first two La Liga games of the season he joined the rest of the players for the pre-match warm-up but then had to watch the matches from the stands. Last week against Espanyol he made it on to the bench and even got to warm up in the second half.

Woodgate will not have been that impressed by what he has seen from his privileged position on the sidelines. Real have lost their last three games with the back four leaking seven goals and looking particularly vulnerable from set-pieces.

The team and Luxemburgo, in particular, have come in for some heavy criticism for their failure to live up to their billing, after all the club spent close to £60m in the summer on refurbishing a squad that has failed to win anything for the past two seasons.

Yet, while the pressure is on his team mates, Real's mini-crisis presents a perfect opportunity for Woodgate to present his credentials and win himself a place in the starting line-up.

The 25-year-old has the power and presence in the air that none of his competitors possess, his positioning is better than theirs and if Real can keep a clean sheet for the first time this season, he will certainly be the toast of the Bernabeu on his debut.

l Barcelona's highly rated Argentina striker Lionel Messi faces a prolonged absence from La Liga this season because he does not have a European Union passport. The Spanish League has ruled that the 18-year-old, who broke into the first team last season, is ineligible to play because Barça already possesses its quota of three non-EU players. The club is waiting for a ruling on Messi from Spain's Higher Sports Council next week. However, the Council's decision may be influenced by the League's rejection.

Woodgate's agonising wait

* AUGUST 2004: Joins Real Madrid for £13.6m carrying a thigh injury that had kept him out of action since April.

* OCTOBER 2004: Finds out that he will be out for another 10 weeks with the injury.

* JANUARY 2005: Suffers ruptured tendon in addition to the thigh problem.

* MARCH 2005: It is announced that Woodgate will be out for the rest of the season, having yet to play for Real.

* CLOSE-SEASON 2005: Trains all summer and eventually returns to full training in July.

* AUGUST 2005: Makes first Real appearance in a friendly against a Major League select XI at the Bernabeu.

* SEPTEMBER 2005: Prepares to make first start in a competitive fixture for Real at home to Athletic Bilbao tonight.