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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 their 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