Real Madrid justified its offseason moves after going seven points clear of second-place FC Barcelona ahead of the Spanish league's two-week winter break.
Julio Baptista underused and cast away by Fabio Capello last season continued to repay Madrid coach Bernd Schuster's confidence on Sunday. The Brazil midfielder scored the 36th-minute winner with a half-volley as Madrid beat bitter rival Barcelona 1-0 in the classic derby.
"It's one of the most important goals of my life and I'll never forget it," Baptista said.
Madrid has won five straight games in all competitions since Baptista found himself in Schuster's starting 11, which is playing the type of football Schuster was hired to bring to the Santiago Bernabeu.
"I think he simply worked hard and had faith in what he could do," Schuster said of Baptista. "He waited for his chances and has used them very well. He's earned them."
The former Sevilla striker spent a forgettable season at Madrid before being loaned out to Arsenal.
Baptista's back now and another standout goal leaves Madrid in a commanding position at the top of the league over Christmas. "Those seven points are a lot at this point of the season," Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez said. "All we can do is keep working hard."
The title is Madrid's to lose at this point, with inconsistent Valencia and Sevilla having to make up deficits of 15 and 18 points respectively.
Madrid president Ramon Calderon dismissed Capello last year only weeks after the now-England manager guided the club to its record 30th league title.
David Beckham and Roberto Carlos were let go by Madrid, which kept faith with striker Raul Gonzalez, despite the fact that the Madrid captain was coming off a sub-par season that saw him dropped from Spain for the first time in a decade. Raul has since recovered his form, scoring eight goals so far this season. Calderon spent euro120 million (US$172 million) to bring in players such as Wesley Sneijder (euro27 million; US$39 million) and Arjen Robben (euro36 million; US$52 million) in a bid for exciting and winning football.
"We've achieved the goal we set for ourselves for the end of 2007: to be leaders and to play well," Raul said. One of Sunday's standouts was Pepe, the Spanish league's most expensive defensive transfer after Madrid paid FC Porto euro30 million (US$43 million) for the Portuguese center back.
Madrid's defense didn't give Ronaldinho or striker Samuel Eto'o any room and, with leading scorer Lionel Messi out to injury, Barcelona couldn't improvise.
"I don't know what went wrong," midfielder Andres Iniesta said. "We gave everything and by the end we didn't have anything to show for it."
Barcelona's 2007 will be remembered by a steady decline in the form that saw it come into the year as two-time defending Spanish champions and European winners.
Thierry Henry has yet to impress since his arrival from Arsenal and the cloud surrounding Ronaldinho's future shows no signs of clearing as the Brazil midfielder fails to live up to his own weighty expectations on the field.
Top it all off with a defeat to Madrid, its third in 24 years at the Camp Nou.
"It was a big blow," coach Frank Rijkaard said. "There are a lot of matches ahead ... Madrid has a sizable advantage, but anything is possible."