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Immediate Reaction: Athletic Bilbao 1 - 2 Real Madrid

Real Madrid escape a tough away fixture

Athletic Club v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Real Madrid squeak by Athletic Bilbao with a 1-2 away victory (Aduriz 65’; Benzema 25’, Casemiro 68’). Here are a few notes:

Real Madrid’s win at the San Mames today went as expected. Blood was shed for these three points; it was a narrow margin of victory against a physical team fuelled by a raucous crowd. Again, it was just as we had anticipated. Six of our staff predicted a 1-2 away win prior to kick-off.

En route, Bilbao pinned Real Madrid and dominated possession in the final third, Raul Garcia attempted to break bones, Benzema’s knee buckled at the end of the first half, and Bilbao finally scored off a cross — taking advantage of one of their strengths, as well as some poor marking in the area after Marcelo did his best to stop Iñaki’s initial cross.

Yes, it was tough and physical — but also sweet and efficient. To be sure, anytime you beat Raul Garcia, you’ve actually gained not only three points, but also a nice sleep, and brownie points in the afterlife.

What’s important is the three points, clearly — but also the way Real Madrid dealt with adversity. Zidane’s men were pinned deep from the first minute, and though it looked chaotic, it may have been better than it actually looked. Athletic played with energy and had great movement without the ball -- particularly from Iñaki Williams, who played really well, and gave Marcelo problems. But the coverage was good enough that Real Madrid prevented the final pass or shot from happening in the first half. The one or two moments Bilbao looked close to scoring, it came from a diagonal cross or set-piece (fitting, that it was eventually a cross where the goal came).

The structure was wonky too. While the BBC did work hard — particularly Cristiano Ronaldo, who did so many good things without the ball from deep positions -- there was a struggle binding the midfield with the attack. Bilbao pressed hard in the middle, and despite moments of good tight-passing throughout the game, the midfield was visibly unnerved. This problem has recurred a few times this season when Zidane lines up his ‘Once de Gala’; and through no fault of any individual player, the scheme lacks compactness and build-up play. The solution to this problem always seems to be to pack the midfield — or in the case of the 2nd half in Naples, drop Bale a little deeper. The latter option is not ideal, as that’s not the best use of Bale.

Amid all this, Real Madrid had the better clear-cut chances of the first half, even if Bilbao deceptively looked like the better team; and eventually Benzema scored after an arrow long ball from Casemiro found Ronaldo who squared it to the Frenchman.

An interesting turning point was when Zidane made his first sub, introducing Lucas Vazquez for.... Luka Modric. It was surprising. The introduction of Vazquez in a game where you need help plugging the flanks makes sense, but it would have been really intriguing to see Zidane sacrifice Benzema instead — packing the midfield, and sliding Ronaldo up top to emulate the efficient scheme that was used in the Calderon earlier this season.

Everything worked out. Immediately after the substitution, Real Madrid conceded the equalizer, but soon after, you could see the benefit of the 4-4-2 that Zidane implemented with that substitution. While it’s not perfectly ideal to remove Modric from any game, the midfielder was struggling to retain possession and finding outlets all game; and with Bale moving to the left to link up with Marcelo, and Vazquez aiding Carvajal on the opposite flank, things started to stabilize. Soon after, Casemiro scored from a corner — Bilbao opting to stop Ramos by marking him with everyone they could, leaving the Brazilian anchor free to shoot in front of an empty goal with no one around him.

Still to come: player ratings and match review tonight, post-game podcast tomorrow, and my column on Monday.

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