Real Madrid went into last Sunday’s Clasico against Barcelona aiming to land a decisive blow in the title race – but a week later, they take on Rayo Vallecano with serious questions over their own La Liga credentials.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side followed up their controversial 4-3 defeat at the Bernabeu with an away loss to Sevilla on Wednesday, leaving them third in the standings and three points behind leaders Atletico Madrid and two adrift of Barcelona.
Real went ahead through a deflected Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick at the Sanchez Pizjuan but were unable to sustain the lead for long, eventually going down to a pair of counter-attacking strikes from Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca.
Real started brightly but as the game progressed they lost their composure going forward as they frantically sought a second goal. Sevilla, by contrast, defended solidly and were always a threat with Madrid looking susceptible at the back.
The pair of defeats have undermined Real’s strong run since Christmas and the inferior head-to-head records against Atletico and Barca could yet prove decisive if there is a tie at the top of the table at the end of the season.
Able to brush aside weaker sides, Real have picked up just three points from away games against Sevilla, Atletico, Barca, Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal among the stronger sides in the league, casting doubts over both their tactics and mentality.
“Obviously it is more difficult now. We are behind but it is not impossible,” Ancelotti told reporters as he reflected on the back-to-back losses.
“It will affect us and it is a bit strange. I have said a lot of times that the difficult moment would arrive and here it is.
“We need character and personality from everyone so that we can respond quickly. It is tougher now as all the games are important.”
Despite closing the gap at the top, there is a sombre mood at Barcelona ahead of tomorrow’s derby with Espanyol following news that keeper Victor Valdes suffered a torn knee ligament in the midweek win over Celta Vigo and will miss the rest of the season.
“For him, the situation and what it means for us from here on, it is very bad news,” playmaker Andres Iniesta said.
“Football and sport are like this. When you are playing each Sunday and Wednesday, for good or for bad, it doesn’t give you time to savour moments or to have regrets. For this reason, we are Barca and we are mentally prepared to push to the limit.
“There is nothing for us to do other than look forward with who we have available.
“You cannot sit back as if you sleep then the rest will move ahead of you. We are back now in the title fight due to our own merits. There is a month and a half to go and we will give everything.”
Atletico remain a model of consistency and despite leading the table, coach Diego Simeone continues to claim that they are the outsiders for the title ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Athletic Bilbao.
“The lads are putting in an enormous effort and we know that it will be valued at the end. With eight games still to go, the advantage is with the sides that have more resources,” he said.
Meanwhile, Barcelona have agreed a deal to sign sought-after Croatia teenager Alen Halilovic from Dinamo Zagreb, the Catalan giants have announced.
The 17-year-old attacking midfielder will cost Barca an initial 2.2million euros (£1.8m) with add-ons depending on his achievements at the Nou Camp.
Halilovic, who became Croatia’s youngest player when he made his international debut against Portugal in a friendly last June, has penned a five-year contract with the Spanish champions and will initially link up with their reserve side.