On Sunday afternoon, after a cagey first half where both teams defended well but weren’t piercing on the offensive end, Real Madrid brushed past Athletic Bilbao as Zinedine Zidane’s men turned up a gear after half-time.
Zidane finally inserted Jesus Vallejo into the start lineup (he was the only player yet to feature under the Frenchman of the available players), while both Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos were left out of the match-day squad. Vallejo, to be sure, had a really strong game, particularly given that he had only played two minutes in La Liga this entire season — in a brief cameo against Real Valladolid. His biggest weakness at Frankfurt — beating his man to a cross — didn’t surface tonight, as he dealt with clearances and beat the speedy and talented Iñaki to the ball anytime the situation arose.
In the first half — apart from the final cross, pass, and shot — Real Madrid’s build-up was encouraging, particularly on the left side where Marcelo, Marco Asensio, and Karim Benzema got into good positions. Benzema was undoubtedly the best of the trio. Marcelo got himself into good shooting and crossing positions, but he was poor once that final touch arrived. Asensio was un-decisive and shaky in the first half — taking too lung to pull the trigger on an open shot, making a bad pass in transition, or playing a cross when a cut-back to open players was needed.
On the opposite flank, Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez were a wall defensively — locking down anything Bilbao sent them down the wing, and combining for 10 tackles at the half. Offensively, though, they couldn’t get going, and Lucas in particular was underwhelming with his touches and passes once winning the ball.
At the half, both teams had looked relatively good defensively (although Bilbao would’ve been punished had Real Madrid been sharper with their opportunities in the final third), and neither were sharp when attacking.
Real Madrid started the second half in an entirely different gear. Asensio looked more confident, Kroos really started pulling strings, and Benzema continued his scoring form by hitting two impressive headers — the first of which coming from an Asensio cross, and the second where he bullied Yeray at the far-post from a corner:
| GOAL! |— Eleven Sports (@ElevenSports_UK) April 21, 2019
Karim Benzema breaks the deadlock on the counter!
Asensio with the cross and Benzema heads it home pic.twitter.com/YFKbAjIckk
GOAL!! It's that man again, @Benzema with another header for @realmadrid to make it 2-0.#RealMadridAthletic #LiveOnStrive— Strive Sport (@strivesport) April 21, 2019
Catch today’s @LaLiga action live on strive https://t.co/uoTcQuail6 pic.twitter.com/18meol4sE1
Bilbao’s defense really crumbled in the second half, and they started to leave holes in the half-spaces, while allowing Asensio and Vazquez freedom on the flanks. In the 91st minute, they conceded Benzema’s hat-trick, as goalkeeper Herrerin came out of his net and gave the ball away. Benzema clipped the ball over Herrerin and into the empty net.
Today’s performance at the Bernabeu felt more like the ‘feel-good’ wins that we’ve grown used to seeing under Zidane in years past, and keep in mind it was against a surging Bilbao side who had a lot to play for as they chase a European spot. We’ll break this down more in the coming hours.