Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Real Madrid (Benzema x2). Here is the immediate reaction to the eventful win. Coming up: press conference best bits, player ratings and the post game podcast.
After a busy few days, Real Madrid found themselves with a slightly depleted squad after the Cádiz draw due to COVID-19, injuries and suspension. Lucas Vázquez once again slotted in a left-back, with Nacho Fernández deployed in the centre to cover for the ill David Alaba. In midfield both Eduardo Camavinga and Fede Valverde replaced the suspended Casemiro and sick Luka Modrić. Eden Hazard again got the start in a front three of captain Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior. Six youth players made the bench to replace the remaining absentees. With rivals Sevilla, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid dropping points again over the last matchday, this was another good opportunity to pull further ahead in La Liga for Los Blancos.
Athletic Bilbao is not an easy away trip on a good day, so fans were pleading for key individuals to rise to the task in order to avoid dropping points for the second game in a row. Little did they realise that their key man Karim Benzema would come good, twice, within seven minutes. First he hit a strike first time after some good build up play to score a world class goal - and he then took advantage of a defensive mistake to avoid being flagged offside and finish low past the keeper. You’d think this would make for a comfortable game now, but within three minutes Bilbao pulled one back with a cracker of their own. Not much is getting beyond Thibaut Courtois’ reach, but this curling effort from Oihan Sancet was perfect and creeped in off of the post. The game continued to be as back and forth as a tennis match from then on, and Bilbao could have been back in the game after heading over and shooting just wide from distance. Madrid had their own chances to extend the lead but Hazard did not make the right decision in a three versus two inside the box and unsuccessfully tried to feed Benzema for his hattrick. The rollercoaster slowed for the final few minutes, but Madrid would have to weather the second half to preserve their 2-1 lead.
Karim Benzema has scored his 400th career goal! pic.twitter.com/oYXiy9Plfh— Madrid Xtra. (@MadridXtra) December 22, 2021
Normality resumed for much of the second half as proceedings regressed to the typical steady tempo. Few chances were produced from both sides throughout the half, but Bilbao did actually exceed the visitors on chance creation. Courtois made a good save from another long ranged strike, before another header flew high over the bar much like in the first half. A couple of dangerous balls into the box made Madrid fans a little nervy, but none of the chances looked like they might deal that final blow. Other than Hazard striking a tame shot towards the goalkeeper late on, Madrid created next to nothing as they shifted their focus on shutting up shop to protect the three points. Mariano Díaz was brought on alongside Castilla star Peter González for his Real Madrid debut. This only broke up the play momentarily as Courtois was summoned to action with a good low save to deny Nico Williams the equaliser. Toni Kroos came close to making it three at the end, but the visitors also kept the pressure up on Madrid. The closing minutes were tense, but Madrid battled well to contain the hosts and confirm the three points. Tune into the post game podcast released later today to examine the important away win at San Mamés!