MADRID • Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez criticised his players for a poor first-half performance and a lack of accuracy in front of goal in the second, after they suffered a surprise 0-1 defeat at Villarreal in La Liga on Sunday.
The loss at the Madrigal, after an early goal by former Real forward Roberto Soldado, leaves the visitors third, five points adrift of leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
Real's haul of 30 points at this stage represents their worst start since the 2008-09 campaign and heaps more pressure on the unpopular Benitez.
Already reeling after they were hammered 0-4 at home by Barca in last month's Clasico, Real's defeat by Villarreal comes hard on the heels of their expulsion from the King's Cup for fielding an ineligible player.
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I am not happy at all with the first half and I think the reaction in the second half is the route we have to follow. Unfortunately, today it has cost us three points.
RAFAEL BENITEZ, on Real Madrid's surprise loss to Villarreal
Benitez, who took over from Carlo Ancelotti after the Italian was sacked at the end of last season, has been blamed by the fans for Real's woes and was roundly whistled before Tuesday's Champions League game at home to Malmo.
Some players also seem unimpressed with the former Valencia, Liverpool and Inter Milan manager.
Dressing room heavyweights Cristiano Ronaldo and Toni Kroos, an unused substitute for the second straight game in all competitions, spoke last week about how much they miss Ancelotti.
Benitez had little to offer in the way of an explanation after Sunday's defeat.
"It is difficult to explain because it is clear in the first half we didn't play well and I expected the team (to play the way) we saw in the second half, albeit we lacked precision," he said.
Benitez has struggled to shed a reputation as a defensive coach since returning to Real, where he cut his coaching teeth in the youth academy.
It was noted at his post-match news conference that the team have scored 23 fewer league goals than at the same stage last term.
"The team are the ones that have the most shots," he told reporters. "The explanation has to do with efficiency and that's something we have to work on."
Real have a week off before they host city rivals Rayo Vallecano in La Liga next Sunday.
Benitez refused to admit defeat in the title race with 23 matches still to go.
"I insist this is a league in which all the teams will lose points," he added.
"The important thing is to face the games like we did in the second half. That will allow us to have more guarantees and win games.
"I am not happy at all with the first half and I think the reaction in the second half is the route we have to follow. Unfortunately, today it has cost us three points."
Real defender Pepe questioned the spirit of his team-mates as Villarreal pounced on an incredibly lame start by the 10-time European champions.
"We weren't switched on from the beginning. We know Villarreal would make it difficult and to win games we need to start brighter and with more determination," said the Portugal international.
"We need to fix this and speak to one another. I don't know the reason why we started the first half without much spirit in the team."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE