Real Madrid have made it seven victories in a row, defeating Athletic Club 1-0 on Wednesday night in the postponed Matchday 9 fixture. As the Bernabéu chanted “Karim, Ballon d’Or”, the French striker delivered once again by tucking away the only goal of the game in the first half. It wasn’t a pretty victory by any means, but it counts and it throws up a lot of talking points, which are discussed below.
1. Would Athletic still be as stubborn defensively without Martínez?
It was difficult to know how good Athletic Club would be defensively in this game. They came into the match with the best defensive record in LaLiga Santander, with 10 goals conceded from 14 games, but they were without the suspended Iñigo Martínez and injured Dani Vivian, meaning fourth-choice centre-back Unai Núñez had to start. Would Real Madrid be able to exploit him? Well, in the first minutes Nuñez could well have given away a penalty and it was a slight surprise that Isidro Díaz De Mera Escuderos didn’t blow since he’s the referee to have called the most penalties so far this season. Generally, though, Athletic Club did defend well. They were a solid unit with two lines of four in perfect sync like a line of table football players. That’s why Real Madrid couldn’t put this one to bed.
2. How would Lucas and Asensio share the right flank?
For the first time this season, Lucas Vázquez and Marco Asensio started together. They were the choices at right-back and right forward, so it was going to be interesting to see exactly how they would share the right flank. Ancelotti has said before that the set-up of the right flank changes much more than the left side and that this depends on the personnel involved. With the Lucas-Asensio duo, we saw Lucas stay very tight to the touchline and Asensio move very central, so much so that on several occasions Benzema was closer to the right touchline than the man from Mallorca. It was interesting and it worked quite well, with the goal made by the rebound from a shot taken by Asensio from inside the D of the Athletic penalty area.
3. How would Benzema respond to the Ballon d’Or disappointment?
So, Karim Benzema didn’t win the Ballon d’Or. But, he picked up where he left off by getting his name on the scoresheet. This was his 15th goal against Athletic Club, with the Basque side the club he has scored the most against in his entire career. After turning in what was his 17th goal of the season, the Bernabéu crowd chanted in unison “Karim, Ballon d’Or”, showing their love for the Frenchman.
1. How did Courtois only finish eighth in the Yashin Trophy?
The Benzema Ballon d’Or debate has been rumbling on for weeks and will continue to. But, more egregious to me on Monday night was the fact that Thibaut Courtois only came joint eighth in the voting for the Yashin Trophy. The Belgian has been outstanding all year and it has become a running joke that “it’s not a Real Madrid game until Courtois makes his world-class save”. After coming up big against Sevilla on Sunday, the No.1 did so once again against Athletic Club with a perfect parry of a Raúl García header in the first half and another brilliant block on Oihan Sancet in the second.
2. Was this Vinícius’ best passing game?
Vinícius has evolved from a top dribbler to add finishing and goals to his game this campaign. We all know that. It’s arguably the story of the season so far. But, in this match he really stood out for his passing. There were little nudges through the eye of the needle. There were pin-perfect cross-field balls. There were all types of passes to keep Real Madrid moving in the right direction. By the end of the game, he’d completed 47 out of 50 attempted passes for a success rate of 94%. Only once before when attempting 10 passes or more has he had a better pass percentage, which was 95% against Real Valladolid in Matchday 24 last season. But, then it was only 20 out of 21, so tonight’s game was his best in a Real Madrid shirt. Not just because of the percentage, but because of the confidence and quality of some of those passes.
3. Can Real Madrid make it a Basque double?
This was the first of two Basque clashes in a row for Real Madrid. They’ve taken three points from this one and next up comes Real Sociedad away on Saturday night. That should be an even more difficult one, with La Real sitting third and having had a great start to the season. 14 of the 15 matchdays held so far this season have finished with either Real Sociedad or Real Madrid top of the table, so Saturday’s game promises to be a true heavyweight bout. Imanol also has a great record against Los Blancos, having won three, drawn two and lost two of seven matches against the capital city club. It should be a fun one and we’ll, of course, have all the pre- and post-match coverage of that game too.