BARCELONA - Real Madrid can still retain their La Liga title insisted coach Zinedine Zidane despite slumping to a shock 2-1 defeat at Girona on Sunday on their much-anticipated return to Catalonia.
The European champions hadn't set foot in the deeply divided region over Catalan independence since a violence-marred referendum on October 1 sparked a political crisis across Spain.
Just days after the central Spanish government imposed home rule on Catalonia to nullify the local separatist leaders' attempts to declare independence, Madrid were expected to enter the eye of the storm in the pro-independence hotbed of Girona, just over 100 kilometres northeast of Barcelona.
However, there were only a smattering of chants in favour of independence amid a largely party atmosphere with Spanish flags also waved by the Madrid support.
The locals' celebrations were sparked by events on the field as Girona beat Zidane's all-conquering superstars in the first ever meeting between the sides.
"We said before the game that we knew it was going to be difficult match," said Zidane. "I was not surprised by the tempo of the opponent."
Madrid now face a huge task to reel in Barcelona at the top of the table as they trail the La Liga leaders by eight points after just 10 games.
However, Zidane defended his players' attitude as they struggled to cope with Girona's pace and power throughout the 90 minutes.
"I am not worried about a lack of intensity or desire. Things aren't going well for us in La Liga, but we will work hard as we have been doing until now.
"We have lost three points today which wasn't what we expected after four wins, but the players desire for the league remains intact."
Madrid had gone in front after just 12 minutes when Isco slotted home a loose ball after Cristiano Ronaldo's initial effort had been parried by Girona goalkeeper Bono.
Yet, the visitors created precious little else and Girona turned the game around in four second-half minutes through Christhian Stuani and Portu just before the hour mark.
"We needed the second goal. We played well in the first-half, but football is about small details and their first goal comes from a throw-in where we weren't concentrated," added Zidane.
Isco, though, warned that having dropped points in four of their opening 10 games, Madrid don't have much more margin for error. "It's a dark day," said the Spanish international.
"It's a tough defeat to take. We paid a heavy price for switching off in the first few minutes of the second-half. "That is something that can't happen if we want to aspire to winning all the titles."