Carlo Ancelotti has said he expected Real Madrid to be fighting for the title with Barcelona and not Atletico Madrid as well.
The Madrid sides meet on Sunday at Vicente Calderon and Ancelotti has praised the hosts for their performances so far this season.
In a wide-ranging interview with Canal +, Ancelotti discussed issues of tactics and man management but claimed it was time to stop talking about balance and start winning trophies.
“It’s a very interesting League campaign, very exciting,” Ancelotti said.
“There are three brave, strong sides battling for the title.
“It’s a surprise because I thought that it would be between Barcelona and Madrid but Atletico are doing a fantastic job.
“It’s very surprising to see that at this level, 60 points are not enough to be top of the table.
“[Atletico] could perfectly play in any league,” the Italian continued.
“They know what their shortcomings are and they exploit their qualities: punishing their opponents on the counter-attack or from set-pieces.
“They are an efficient team. Atletico is just like Simeone was when he was a player – they give the maximum and play as a unit.”
The former Paris Saint-Germain Coach admitted that Madrid were taking heart from having knocked Atletico out of the Copa del Rey.
“Both of those games gave us confidence because in the League derby, we had problems,” he conceded.
Ancelotti also had kind words for Barca, specifically his counterpart on the bench, Tata Martino.
“I like him, he’s doing well. His character is similar to mine,” Ancelotti noted.
“He doesn’t look for problems. His job isn’t easy because Barca are used to a strict style of play which has given them results.”
Ancelotti is now more than half way through his first season at Santiago Bernabeu and if the three-way title race has surprised him, he insists life at Madrid has caught him less unaware.
“I kind of imagined it would be like this – it’s a club with a great history and a great image all over the world,” Ancelotti said.
“Then there’s the pressure which goes with coaching a team like this.
“There are three different kinds of pressure: pressure from the media, from the club and from the players who don’t get many chances to play.
“That is the hardest to manage because you have to work with those players every day. Handling the first two is a bit easier.”
Ancelotti went into specifics about two of the players he may have been referring to, Isco and Jese.
“There are still many games to play and I can’t be thinking that some players will be playing in all of them. We need all of our players,” Ancelotti said.
“Jese is willing – he’s scoring goals and setting up his teammates. We’re very lucky to have him here.
“He is a very focused player and he works hard. I cannot control what is said outside of the club. I have a lot of good players.
“In my day, talent was admired but now, you also require a high level of professionalism.
“Could Jese go to the World Cup? Well, it was a big surprise when Paolo Rossi was called for Italy [in 1982].”