By Tim Hanlon
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Coach Carlo Ancelotti has singled out center halves Sergio Ramos and Pepe for special praise after lauding Real Madrid's improved defensive performances since the turn of the year.
While leading teams Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have been consistent all season, third-placed Real have been erratic away from home but are only three points off the top as they prepare to visit bottom club Real Betis on Saturday (1500 GMT).
"The year has started well for us but we need to keep battling because at any moment problems can surface. The defense has been doing well and is looking strong," Ancelotti told a news conference.
"Pepe and Ramos are the reason for the improvement that we have had," added the Italian, referring to the fact Real are yet to concede a goal this year.
Real secured a place in the King's Cup quarter-finals by ousting Osasuna on Wednesday and Ancelotti, with next month's Champions League last-16 clash with Schalke 04 also in mind, said his team were going to have to grind out results.
"Now we are at the most difficult point as all the games are very important. We cannot always play fantastic football," he said.
"There will be a lot of games so it isn't straightforward but the team is concentrated, working well and in good spirits."
Real cannot expect any slipups this weekend from Barcelona or Atletico who face mid-table Levante and Sevilla respectively.
Argentina forward Lionel Messi is looking sharp for Barca having built up his strength following a persistent hamstring injury and Brazilian team mate Neymar is also fully fit now having failed to start a game since Christmas.
Coach Gerardo Martino is pleased with the way the leaders picked up a point at Atletico last weekend despite being short of their best.
"We showed we can still compete even though we didn't have a good night," said Martino of the 0-0 draw. "It is beneficial as it means that when we are not on top of our game it doesn't imply automatically that we are going to lose.
"I am satisfied with that because we now face key matches against sides that will make it difficult for us. It isn't necessarily the way to win trophies but it gives us confidence.
"So far we have had few slipups and we are improving as we go along. To begin with we were just getting the results but now the performances are coming along as well."
Atletico, in second place but on the same points as Barca, have been the surprise package of the season.
"We have a team that responds at important moments," said coach Diego Simeone. "You need to have a team of men that are able to deal with difficult situations against top rivals.
"I would like to say thanks to all my players. There is not one that doesn't work hard."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez) nL3N0KQ3QK