Robinho refuels Real glory charge
© AFP

Robinho arrived in Europe accustomed to doing things at breakneck speed. By the age of 15 he had been hailed by Pele as his heir apparent, at 18 in 2002 he propelled Santos to their maiden Brazilian Championship title, and the following season he scored one of the competition's fastest-ever goals after just 11 seconds and debuted for Brazil in his teens.

Establishing himself on the Old Continent, however, is something that the extravagantly gifted playmaker struggled to achieve following a much publicised transfer to Real Madrid in July 2005. Although Robinho's star flickered during his first two seasons in the Spanish capital, it failed to radiate consistently in the Bernabeu skies.

Speculation linking Robinho with a move away from the Spanish capital indicated that the jury was still out on him going into the 2007/08 campaign. But if that jury deliberated to reach its verdict, it ultimately arrived unanimous and emphatic.

Exhilarating in style, irrepressible in output, Robinho has cemented himself as one of the shining lights in European football this term. He has, in the process, fronted Real Madrid's assault on domestic and continental glory.

'Best form'
Robinho started the La Liga season in resplendent form, combining his trademark step-overs, speed and clever reverse passes to unlock defences, while also displaying improved composure in front of goal. And as the season progressed, so too did the Real No10's productivity.

On 27 January, Robinho earned himself the "perfect birthday gift" by scoring twice in a 3-2 win over high-flying Villarreal, two days after turning 24. The victory extended Real's winning streak to eight games, and their advantage over second-placed Barcelona to nine points. It was a sequence indebted to the former Santos ace.

"I'm without doubt in my best form since joining Real," Robinho commented afterwards. "Everything is going for me right now. I'm creating chances and scoring goals. I'm very pleased with the football I'm playing but I'm always looking to improve."

Nevertheless, an injury to Robinho - sustained during a 7-0 reverse of Real Valladolid on 10 February - coincided with his side's loss of form. A defeat at Real Betis preceded a loss at home to Getafe, results which allowed Barcelona to close to within two points of the summit ahead of Round 26 last weekend.

Then, a recovered Robinho began on the bench but with Real drawing at Recreativo Huelva, he was thrown on 16 minutes from time. In keeping with his capacity to succeed at speed, he took just 23 seconds to edge Los Merengues in front with his first touch, and then added what proved to be the winner in a 3-2 victory in injury time, courtesy of a sublime chip.

"The points were very important," Robinho said after Real stormed five points clear of their arch-rivals. "We are very happy because we have returned to winning ways. I hope we can continue to play well so that we can become champions of Spain and champions of Europe."

Pressure
To realise the latter of these objectives, Real must first overcome a stern obstacle in Roma, who will take a 2-1 lead into tonight's last 16, second leg game. That cushion was seized in Robinho's absence in the Italian capital, and with Dutch winger Arjen Robben sidelined - and his compatriot Ruud van Nistelrooy set to join him on the sidelines - the Brazilian knows he will have to carry additional pressure on his shoulders at the Bernabeu.

Not that it fazes him. "I like the responsibility. I hope to be able to help the team as best I can, whether that is by scoring, by defending or by making the right pass," Robinho said before highlighting Real's aim to win the UEFA Champions League.

"We are not thinking about failure. We are thinking about playing, to give ourselves a real chance and to progress. With great respect to Roma, we have the aim of being champions and for that we will have to play a great game."

Robinho has certainly produced plenty of those this season.