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Real Madrid need to take Athletic Bilbao seriously

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Athletic Bilbao arrive at the Bernabeu ahead of their showdown with Real Madrid in surprisingly dismal form. Their latest setback, a 2-1 midweek reverse to BATE in the Champions League, leaves the Basque side stuck firmly in the midst of a barren stretch of poor results that has seen them score only twice in their last six matches.

Juan Manuel Serrano Arce

Bilbao ended August on a high note, beating Napoli in an emotional tie to gain access to the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. It's remarkable how this combative tie has seemed to mark both teams. Since then Ernesto Valverde's men have struggled mightily. Athletic's league form has been of particular concern to Valverde, as his proud, resourceful club has recorded just four points through six Primera Division matches.

Their most recent domestic encounter was a sloppy, punchless 0-0 home draw against Eibar that saw them come away with nothing despite dominating the match with a whopping 70%-30% advantage in possession, much of it in Eibar's zone. Yet that domination of the ball yielded only one shot on target, according to WhoScored. This pattern also bore out in Belarus with Bilbao owning 57% of possession against BATE, but feebly being able to convert it into just two shots on goal. Obviously, the loss of talismanic midfielder Ander Herrera to Manchester United was a considerable blow--but Athletic's overall lack of organization and cohesion this season relative to last becomes glaringly evident when looking closely at numbers such as this.

Prior to Eibar, Bilbao lost 2-1 away to a decent run-and-gun Rayo squad in a match where possession was distributed evenly between the two sides. The surprising lack of fluency was once again on display as Athletic committed a high number of individual errors, with players pressing hard to create singular moments of brilliance. For example, the mercurial, incredibly talented Iker Muniain has recorded more successful dribbles (26) than anyone else La Liga. This shows that in an attempt to arrest their early season slide some Athletic players are perhaps relying too heavily on individual instincts, thus paradoxically short-circuiting the cohesion that defined the side a year ago.

This tendency to press also marred Bilbao's 0-1 home defeat to Granada. They once again dominated possession (66%-34%) but were undone by unforced errors and wasteful finishing. The fact that they will play on the road against Los Blancos offers no solace whatsoever. That's because Athletic Club have conceded 20 times in their last five league trips to the Bernabeu, with Madrid scoring at least three goals against the Basques in their last seven trips to the capital in all competitions.  To make Bilbao's task that much more difficult, reports emerged on Friday that forward Aritz Aduriz, the man responsible for two of the side's paltry four league goals, picked up an injury and was doubtful to feature. Muniain's availability is also in question.

This all sets up perfectly to Real's advantage, but expect Athletic Club to fight with the tenacity of club desperate to change the tenor of their season before its too late.