What to expect from Athletic Bilbao
Athletic Bilbao is a team really hard to gauge at the moment. They seem to be capable of moments of brilliance equaled by moments of utterly horrid play. You only need to look at their 5-1 demolition of Barcelona and their 3-1 loss to Villarreal to confirm that. However, I think every fan should expect a really tough match at the San Mamés. They seem to raise their level to unsustainable heights against the toughest of opposition, and thus it would be disastrous to think the match is won going in (something Benitez will be keen to remind his players of).
In addition, you can expect a high intensity performance from Bilbao. Their ability to press and release players on the counter can be devastating and they are always looking for the long ball option towards Aritz Aduriz. If Sergio Ramos isn’t fit to play, Madrid should expect Pepe to be targeted for his relative lack of pace, especially if Bilbao look to play a high line. Varane’s recovery pace could be crucial in protecting Pepe and the defense as a whole.
All in all, Bilbao has a good chance of getting something against a Madrid side that is still trying to find their identity.
What to expect from Real Madrid
Trying to predict what Benitez will do after his tactical surprise in the Granada match is tough. Up until Saturday, Madrid had looked to be extremely direct by employing the fastest transitions from back to front humanly possible. However, with Gareth Bale out, Benitez employed the more typical patient possession-based approach you associate with a top team. But he didn’t execute his plan well (look at my Tactical Review article to see the explanation for that: http://www.managingmadrid.com/2015/9/20/9357009/real-madrid-granada-tactical-review) and his post-match comments (which can be found here: http://www.managingmadrid.com/2015/9/20/9360305/real-madrid-granada-la-liga-15-16-benitez-post-match-presser) indicate that he is going to look to quicken things up once again.
This may make things really interesting against Bilbao. If Athletic play like they usually do against top sides, we should expect a thrilling end-to-end sort of game that will probably be a lot more comfortable for Bilbao than Madrid. However, that style is a double-edged sword. If Madrid embrace the flow of the game they can dance behind Bilbao’s high back-line and score bucket loads of goals.
However, I am more worried about our defense than our attack. Despite not conceding since the start of the season the back four have not impressed. If Benitez wants to play Bilbao at their own game, it would be useful to think about playing Pepe as a sweeper and Varane as a stopper (the Frenchman’s excellent recovery pace and tackling skills would be perfect for the role). To ensure the likes of Aduriz and Garcia can’t simply waltz behind the inevitable spaces that Marcelo and Carvajal will leave behind.
Key Player Match-ups
Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia vs the Madrid back-line
Aritz Aduriz is what you can call a classic center forward. He is big, strong, and easily bullies any defender that comes is way. Only the likes of Sergio Ramos, Vincent Kompany, and Thiago Silva can comfortably say they’ll get the better of him when they (the defenders) are on top form. His heading ability is a nightmare, and Benitez must create a disciplined defensive plan between Varane and Pepe to ensure that there are few spaces in between the two center backs or few spaces anywhere near the six yard box.
But stopping Aduriz is only half the problem. To stop the goals you must not merely stem the tide at the end of the hose, but cut the supply as well. Raul Garcia will be the problem for either Marcelo or Carvajal to deal with (depending or where Ernesto Valverde chooses to display the former Atletico menace) and should probably the biggest source of worry for Madrid fans. His ability to get in behind defenses and deliver crosses with relatively good accuracy could be the undoing of Madrid (not to mention his natural hatred for Real which should kindle a fire under his form). While I have faith in Carvajal, Marcelo will really need to step up his game in comparison to what we’ve seen this season if Madrid is to shutout Bilbao.
Cristiano Ronaldo and co. vs Aymeric Laporte and co.
This is a pretty obvious match-up. While Madrid may feel confident of getting goals because they have the world’s best (or-sigh-second best) player and an excellent partner in Karim Benzema, they must be at their most lethal to blow goals past talented youngster Aymeric Laporte and usually reliable goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz. A lot will depend on the shape Benitez employs. If he goes for the 4-4-2, it will be a constant aerial battle between the two sides. If he goes for the 4-2-3-1, we could see more variation in attack and Ronaldo could devastate the left-hand side with his dribbling. In the end I expect our world-class attack to prevail, but you really never know in football…
Modric and Kroos vs the flow of the game
If Benitez decides to re-employ his high tempo style, it will be up to the dynamic duo in central midfield to ensure Madrid retain control of the game. Every pass will have to be spot on and they will have to decide themselves when to slow things down and when to speed things up. If the ball keeps whipping past them in classic route-one style, one must traverse up the pitch to be more involved with the game while one must stay back to protect the back-line from any counters. With all the talk about attack vs defense and defense vs attack, the way Kroos and Modric manage the game could be the deciding factor in the result Los Blancos end up with.