It was a victorious end to 2021 for Real Madrid, as they won their final game of the calendar year 2-1 away at Athletic Club. Karim Benzema hit two goals inside the opening seven minutes and that ultimately proved enough for the three points and for the Frenchman to receive an ovation from the home crowd. That and some of the other main talking points from this win are discussed below.
1. Would Real Madrid’s 11 absences cost them?
There was one major talking point coming into this match and it was the absences, with 11 players out for Real Madrid (eight of which were COVID-19 cases) and with eight players out for Athletic Club (four of which were COVID-19 cases). So, would Real Madrid struggle because of their set of missing players? Well, certainly not in the opening 10 minutes. They started brilliantly, with Benzema’s two excellent finishes putting the visitors from the capital into a commanding 2-0 lead. Although Athletic pulled one back to make it 2-1, Real Madrid’s line-up of six regular starters and five usual backups nursed that lead to the finish line. This was a strange kind of game, because the lead was secured so early, so it’s difficult to draw certain conclusions from it. But, this performance was better than many expected it to be.
2. Would Courtois beat his record?
Coming into this Wednesday night’s match, Thibaut Courtois had gone 528 minutes without conceding a goal. Not since Rafa Mir’s header for Sevilla in the 12th minute of that November 28th fixture had the Belgian picked the ball out of his net, keeping clean sheets against Athletic, Real Sociedad, Inter, Atlético and Cádiz. His previous record for minutes without conceding a goal for Real Madrid was 535, so he only needed another eight minutes to surpass that at San Mames. He managed that, but only just. In the 10th minute, Oihan Sancet struck his great goal, to leave Courtois’ new record for minutes without conceding at 538.
3. Would we see Peter González?
There was disappointment from some Real Madrid fans that Peter González wasn’t given an opportunity to show what he can do in the final moments of the Cádiz draw on Sunday. Now, with even more players missing for this midweek match, the 19-year-old was back in the squad and more likely to be given a chance off the bench. And he was. In the 86th minute he was introduced to take over the right flank from Eden Hazard and he did a lot in the few minutes available to him. He had a shot and a key pass too in just eight total minutes and, while we must keep in mind that he had acres of space to work with because Athletic had sent everybody forward, this was an eye-catching outing for the teenager.
1. Are you sure Hazard’s back, Carlo?
After playing the full 90 minutes against Cádiz, Eden Hazard played another 86 here in this game. He has certainly come along way from the point earlier in the season when Ancelotti didn’t feel he could play him two games in a row, something the coach even lamented publicly. Plus, the Belgian has had some bright moments in each of these two appearances. But, is he really “back”? That’s one of the questions Ancelotti was asked in his post-match press conference and the Italian concurred. “He has returned. I agree,” was his reply. Maybe we should hold off judging Hazard for now and let’s firstly see if he can manage a third game in a row at Getafe on January 2nd.
2. Who else have the Athletic fans given an ovation to?
There’s something mythical about San Mamés, even the new stadium. People have been watching football in this corner of Bilbao for over a century and the supporters of Athletic Club can recognise a talent when they see it. So, for Benzema to have received an ovation when he was substituted off was a special moment. He follows in the footsteps of some true legends in having earned an ovation from the Bilbao crowd. Other Real Madrid players to have been applauded there include Zinedine Zidane, Michael Laudrup, Juanito and Alfredo Di Stéfano, while others such as Johan Cruyff and Ryan Giggs have been treated to an ovation there too. With Benzema now having scored 17 goals against Athletic, more than against any other opponent, the Basque fans understand how brilliantly he is playing better than most.
3. What happened the other times Real Madrid were winter champions?
Real Madrid have now completed half of their 2021/22 LaLiga Santander campaign, taking 46 points from a possible 57. That means they are the winter champions, topping the table at the halfway stage for the 36th time. On 24 of these previous occasions, they went on to win the title, as was the case when they were last winter champions in 2016/17. However, Ancelotti’s final season from his previous spell at the club was one of the rare occasions when Los Blancos topped the standings at the halfway point, but not at the end of Matchday 38. Back then, they had 48 points at halfway, compared to the 44 of Barcelona, but Barça won that championship with 94 points compared to Real Madrid’s 92. Injuries and fatigue played a role then and Ancelotti stated in a recent press conference that he is determined to lean from seven years ago, saying: “The second half of that season didn’t go well. I don’t forget that. Maybe that previous experience can help me to avoid mistakes this time.”