BARCELONA, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Real Madrid's attacking trident has much potential but under-fire coach Rafa Benitez must harness it more effectively with his team hosting Rayo Vallecano on Sunday having slipped five points off the pace in La Liga.
Defeat last weekend by Villarreal cranked up the pressure on Benitez and, apart from a fortunate victory over Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League, they have been unable to come out on top against any of the leading sides.
Real failed to take advantage of a surprise draw by table-topping Barcelona against Deportivo La Coruna and, with Gareth Bale returning alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, they notched up their fifth game this season without scoring.
They could have put pressure on Barca, who do not play this weekend because they are at the Club World Cup in Japan, but instead it is Atletico Madrid who are pushing the Catalans, trailing on goal difference with 35 points. Real have 30 points.
Spaniard Benitez has had to live with constant comparisons with his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti, who was popular with fans and the players. The Italian's side only failed to score five times in the whole of last season.
Real had managed an 8-0 thrashing of a weak Malmo team in the Champions League playing a 4-4-2 formation but changed to a three-man attack against Villarreal and, even with Bale, they lacked a cutting edge.
Real have been less effective this season playing with Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema as the team recover fewer balls and make 15 fewer passes per game on average, according to newspaper As.
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas, though, has backed them to iron out the problems.
"We have a system and quality. We need to be consistent and battle as a team," he told reporters. "The lack of intensity is the fault of all of us and not anyone in particular and all together we will find the solution."
Atletico, who can take provisional top spot with at least a point at lowly Malaga, are in a rich vein of form having won their last eight games in all competitions.
"The team is growing and it is good to have the respect of rivals and public opinion which makes us happy," Atletico coach Diego Simeone told a news conference.
"When people talk well of your work it is good to help you keep improving. When you get too much praise then you can start to think that it all happens naturally but it isn't like that." (Reporting by Tim Hanlon; Editing by Ken Ferris)