Alonso: Real learning to control games
Jose Mourinho's expensively-assembled side, who play at Real Sociedad on Saturday, relied more on swift counter-attacking last season and often seemed incapable of exerting the control that is a hallmark of their great rivals.
Lately, however, forward Cristiano Ronaldo, resurgent playmaker Kaka, in-form strikers Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain and their team-mates have blown their opponents away in the opening stages before shutting them out by keeping the ball for extended periods.
All four of their goals in last weekend's win at Malaga came in the first half, as did all three in Wednesday's 3-0 success at home to Villarreal. They have netted 21 goals on their run of five victories, conceding only three, and are a point clear of Barca after nine matches.
"We are increasingly able to control games and we are reading them better all the time," said midfielder Xabi Alonso, who dictates play in the central areas much like his Spain team mate Xavi of Barca.
"Today [against Villarreal] we were able to mix some swift attacks with holding on to the ball and knowing how to interpret the game," the former Liverpool player told reporters.
"This means the team is continuing to grow and that's a good sign. The team is ambitious and will continue to do things better. We cannot simply rest on our laurels."
Under normal circumstances Real would be top of the standings but a remarkable run by Levante, who play at Osasuna on Sunday, has lifted them a point clear of the Madrid club and two ahead of Barca.
The tiny Valencia-based side, who lead La Liga for the first time in their 102-year history, have an annual budget of around 20 million euros, one of the smallest in La Liga and minimal compared with Real's of just under 500 million.
Under coach Juan Ignacio Martinez, who is making his debut in the top flight, they are unbeaten this term and have put together an unlikely run of seven victories, including a shock 1-0 home win over Real last month.
"We are the team to beat right now," Ruben Suarez, who scored a powerful stoppage-time free-kick to secure a 3-2 win at home to Real Sociedad on Wednesday, told reporters.
"We have only played nine games of course but we are top and people want to get one over on us now," added the 32-year-old, one of a slew of players in Levante's squad who are over 30.
Barca, bidding for a club record-equalling four straight titles, had mixed news on the injury front ahead of their game at home to Real Mallorca on Saturday.
Pedro has been ruled out for up to three weeks after twisting his left ankle in Tuesday's 1-0 win at Granada, while his fellow forward Alexis Sanchez trained with the squad for the first time since damaging a hamstring on September 10.
Central defenders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are back in full training after injury.
Barca's World Player of the Year Lionel Messi has not scored for three games in all competitions, a drought by his high standards that has prompted questions about his form.
"If there are doubts about Messi then I don't know what they think about the rest of us," midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who came through Barca's youth academy with the Argentine forward, told a news conference.
"I've never played with a player like him, either at youth level or professionally," the former Arsenal captain added.
"He's humble, never hides, always gives everything for the team, and loves the club. There's nothing more to say."