(Reuters) - Real Madrid’s players need to be prepared for rival teams raising their game when they meet the La Liga leaders, coach Zinedine Zidane said on Saturday.
“We know we have to always improve but it’s difficult because when teams play us it’s always their game of the year,” Zidane told a news conference.
“Sometimes you don’t even recognise the opponent when they play against us but that’s normal because playing against Real Madrid is an extra motivation for everyone and we have to always remember that.”
Real, looking for their first title since 2012, were caught out on Wednesday when Valencia woke up from a poor season to inflict only the second defeat of the campaign on Zidane’s side.
The defeat cost Real the chance to gain ground on their rivals, though they remain one point clear of Barcelona going into the weekend’s matches.
On Sunday, Real visit Villarreal, who are sixth in the standings and have the best defence in the league, and Zidane expects a stern test from Fran Escriba’s side.
“It’s an even more difficult game against a really good side who are well organised but it’s good to play so soon after Wednesday; we have the opportunity to pick up points and that’s what we’re going to try and do,” he said.
The weekend could have a large say in the title race, with second-placed Barcelona facing a testing encounter at Atletico Madrid hours before Real meet Villarreal.
“We can’t control that game, we will see it but the most important thing is what we do in our game,” said the coach.
Real could be boosted by Gareth Bale making his first start since injuring his ankle in November. Zidane said the Wales international, who came on as a substitute against Valencia and in the 2-0 win over Espanyol, was “physically 100 percent”.
Portugal defender Pepe is expected to play, after making a first league appearance since December against Espanyol, as France centre back Raphael Varane has been ruled out for five weeks with a thigh problem.
Editing by Clare Fallon