Real Madrid extended their lead at the top of La Liga to seven points on Sunday afternoon with a 1-0 win over Athletic Club in Bilbao.
An entertaining opening period saw the hosts impress. They were able to disrupt the visitors’ build-up high up the pitch, and also ensured Real struggled to penetrate when they fell into their settled shape. Iñaki Williams, meanwhile, provided a serious threat in transition but was unable to make the most of several swift breaks.
Nevertheless, the chance of the half fell to Zinedine Zidane’s side as Karim Benzema glanced his point-blank header wide in stoppage time after some tremendous wing play from Marco Asensio – starting his first La Liga game in 14 months – to fashion the opening.
Chances were few and far between at the start the second period, before Los Blancos started to get a foothold in proceedings just after the hour mark. Their upturn in performance saw them rewarded with a penalty after Dani Garcia trod on the foot of a determined Marcelo before the Brazilian could latch on to Asensio’s pass, allowing Sergio Ramos to score his tenth (!) league goal of the season from the spot.
Athletic offered little going forward after going behind, as Real’s imperious backline shut them out at relative ease in the 20 minutes that remained following the opener to hold on to a huge 1-0 victory.
Starting XI: Simon (6); Capa (6), Yeray (6), Martinez (9), Yuri (5); Lopez (7), D. Garcia (6); Muniain (7), R. Garcia (7), Cordoba (5); Williams (5).
Subs: Nunez (7), De Marcos (5), Vesga (7), Villalibre (6), Sancet (6).
Key Talking Point
This, simply put, was a gargantuan victory for Real Madrid, and the sort of win we’ve grown accustomed to seeing following the restart.
They just get it done.
While it was VAR at Anoeta, Benzema’s genius at Espanyol and Dani Carvajal’s industry against Getafe, on this occasion it was the determination of Marcelo to win Real a penalty which ultimately proved the difference between the two sides.
Athletic made it tough for the visitors throughout as they defended the box expertly, were compact in their 4-2-3-1 and offered an obvious threat on the counter with the craftiness of Iker Muniain and pace of Williams.
Zidane’s men defended soundly as usual though, and although they looked devoid of ideas going forward in the first half, a more structured and energetic showing in the second ensured they earned the one moment they needed to secure victory.
Starting XI: Courtois (6); Carvajal (6), Militao (8*), Ramos (6), Marcelo (7); Casemiro (6), Modric (8), Valverde (6); Rodrygo (6), Benzema (6), Asensio (6).
Subs: Vazquez (6), Vincius (6), Kroos (6), Jovic (N/A).
The imperious form of Raphael Varane and Ramos this term has meant Eder Militao has struggled for minutes in his debut season at Madrid, with the majority of his game time coming in a full-back role this term.
Varane’s neck injury, however, offered Militao the chance to shine in Bilbao and the former Porto man couldn’t have done much more to impress Zidane.
When Athletic found their chief transitional threat Williams in behind, Militao was the man to sweep things up, utilising his speed and nous in one-on-one situations to shut out the jet-heeled Spaniard.
He showed his composure in possession in the first phase although he didn’t offer much progression, while also displaying his dominant aerial ability throughout. Overall, it was the sort of showing that would suggest Militao could be the man to partner Varane in a post-Ramos world.
Real Madrid are back in action on Friday night as they host Deportivo Alaves amid their title charge, before visiting Granada the following Monday.
Athletic, meanwhile, take on Sevilla in Bilbao on Thursday night ahead of their trip to Levante next weekend.