Zinedine Zidane's most difficult matchup as manager of Real Madrid ended in triumph as Los Blancos defeated Athletic Bilbao, 4-2. While Los Merengues have dominated Athletic for the past few years at the Santiago Bernabéu, Los Leones are by no means a pushover.
In the majority of matches, usually one player stands out as the man of the match. However in yesterday's meeting, there's three players who's performance's deserve recognition.
Surprise, surprise, Cristiano Ronaldo showed glimpses of genius. Yet, even though he's provided Madridistas and the generic football fan with eye appealing wizardry on the pitch for years, it's still astonishing when he dribbles a defender into the ground and finishes with ease.
His first goal was vintage Cristiano.
Receive the ball 30 yards out from goal, attack his defender, cut back inside on his right foot and smash it just within the far post. His finish gave Real Madrid an early lead which should've calmed any nerves however we're all aware of what followed at the other end.
While the game sat at 2-1 on the brink of halftime, Cristiano fed Toni Kroos a sublime pass which deflated Bilbao before entering the locker rooms. While it might be true that Cristiano has lost a step, he still attracts an incredible amount of attention. Four defenders gravitated towards the Dark Invader, leaving the German wide-open inside the 18 yard box. There was only ever going to be one result.
Cristiano Ronaldo responds to the doubters with 2 goals and an assist against Athletic. He's now scored 16 goals in 14 games against them.— Kay Murray (@KayLMurray) February 13, 2016
Then his second; the dagger. Chested down a cross from Lucas Vásquez, embarrassed De Marcos and rifled his shot past Iraizoz.
Hats off to Keylor Navas once again. The Costa Rican was brilliant between the sticks and bailed out his defense on a few occasions. Aduriz and company enjoyed a few golden opportunities in front of goal but Navas matched their efforts time and time again.
One save that stood out was Navas's denial of Aduriz early on. Athletic had just equalized, capitalizing off Raphael Varane's mistake and nearly took advantage minutes later. Balenziaga skipped past Danilo on the left flank and aimed a cross at Aduriz. The Spaniard redirected the cross towards goal but Navas's cat-like reflexes kept the scoreline level.
Then let's not forget when Navas left his line to deny Aduriz on the edge of the box.
Aduriz a bit slow. Navas out to stop him. Very good chance.— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) February 13, 2016
While Real Madrid didn't necessarily struggle to create opportunities in the offensive third, the final result could've differed if Athletic took the lead in the first half.
So, how fantastic of a buy was that €29 million Mateo Kovacic signing? Based on his performance Saturday, the purchase was brilliant. The Croatian looked so comfortable on the ball in Athletic Bilbao's half. He linked well with Modric, made turning on a defender look simple and drifted into dangerous areas during his time on the pitch.
He stormed forward on a few marauding runs, connecting with teammates in one-two fashion before nearly picking out the final pass. He stayed central when Luka Modric went forward and all-around provided positive contributions to Real Madrid's attack.
Standing ovation for Mateo Kovacic. Nice one Matty!— Phil Kitromilides (@PhilKitro) February 13, 2016
While he did make a few mistakes in his 72 minutes, he's giving Zidane a headache when it comes to selecting a lineup.