- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

MADRID (AP) - Real Madrid’s long wait to be back on top of the Spanish league is finally over. And it wasn’t all due to Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Spanish giant is in tremendous form, sitting alone atop the La Liga standings for the first time since the 2011/12 season, when it won the title.

Madrid is unbeaten in 26 games - its best run since 1988/89 when it went a record 34 games unbeaten - before Wednesday’s Champions League match at Schalke, when Ronaldo returns after serving a three-game domestic ban.

Madrid’s attack hasn’t dipped despite the Ballon d’Or winner’s absence, with Gareth Bale shining in a 3-0 win over Elche on Saturday.

Madrid was in lethal form compared with erratic efforts by its closest challengers, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, who both trail the Spanish leader by three points.

Madrid hasn’t been alone on top of the standings since closing out its record 32nd league trophy in May 2012. It took the lead over Barcelona that season for good in October, after the ninth round of games.

Confidence is high in the Spanish capital with Barcelona and Atletico following up impressive Champions League victories with poor domestic results.

“We want to win every game,” Bale was quoted as saying on Madrid’s website. “It’s very important to win and put pressure on our title rivals.”

Bale showed a glimpse of why the Welshman is the world’s most expensive player by scoring from a blistering long-range strike that perhaps only Ronaldo or Lionel Messi could emulate.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti has also been masterful in turning around Madrid’s poor start, even having to juggle the lineup in the buildup to Elche with the team uncertain of its appeal of Ronaldo’s ban.

Ancelotti was left unimpressed by the Spanish league’s organization in the matter.

“What has happened is unbelievable, I still don’t understand it and I won’t forget it,” the Italian manager said. “With Cristiano’s case somebody screwed up.”

Ancelotti did not do the same against Elche, while his rivals did in their readings of opponents during weekend defeats.

Barcelona followed up its 2-0 win at Manchester City with a 3-1 loss at Real Sociedad, while Atletico fell 3-0 at Osasuna after a hard-fought 1-0 victory at AC Milan.

“We made a change after the third goal but we really should have done something after the second,” said Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino, who had made several switches to the starting lineup. “The decision not to change was probably wrong. It’s obvious that rotating the squad is a very nice option when you win.”

Barcelona hopes to get fullback Jordi Alba back for Sunday’s game against Almeria, while defender Gerard Pique is expected to miss the match due to a right leg injury.

Atletico has more pressure to rebound, with Madrid making the trip across town to the Vicente Calderon Stadium on Sunday, just weeks after routing its neighbor 5-0 overall in the two-legged Copa del Rey semifinal.

A defeat would leave Atletico six points behind Madrid, and likely a longshot to break the Madrid-Barca monopoly with its first league trophy since 1996.

“If we beat Madrid, the situation will look very different,” Atletico back Juanfran Torres said.


Follow Paul Logothetis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP

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