Real Madrid's players are over their early-season malaise and have regained their focus, their coach, Jose Mourinho, said yesterday ahead of the team's trip to play La Liga leaders Barcelona.
The champions go to the Nou Camp this evening eight points adrift of their rivals after an unimpressive start to their league campaign in which they have lost twice, the same number of games they lost over the whole of last season.
"I have confidence in my players, as always," said Mourinho. "When they work hard obviously I have more confidence in them, complete confidence." Mourinho was highly critical of the attitude of his players after their defeats at Getafe and Sevilla, but they have responded since then, winning four successive matches in all competitions, scoring 14 goals.
"I think you can see the players have understood they had to change," he said. "They understood they had to be more motivated, to be more focused, and that the way the team was would have led to a negative end to the season. It's a credit to them. They have changed, and in this way it is easier for good things to happen."
There have been reports of rifts within the dressing room over the last month, and that the defender Sergio Ramos and the German midfielder Mesut Özil had been left on the substitutes' bench as some kind of punishment.
In response, Mourinho said the decisions were all part of the normal routine of a team. "There is no need for drama when a player is on the bench," he said. "There are 24 in the squad so that means there are 13 who don't play, and every time there is someone on the bench there is a furore. I am paid to decide on the line-ups, I try to do it to the best of my abilities. Full stop."
A defeat would leave Real 11 points behind a Barcelona side who dropped only 15 and 18 points respectively during their title- winning campaigns in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Real dropped only 14 themselves last season.
"All I am looking for is continuity more than the result," the former Chelsea manager added. "I am worried about the way we play, the ambition, the commitment, the team performance and good individual performances. We need to get back to the level of last season, as you know it is difficult to maintain for months on end.
"We lost that level of play, and all I am worried about is recovering it, as we have been doing, and this game is important in this sense."
Barcelona v Real Madrid is on Sky Sports One, kick-off 6.50pm