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Three answers and three questions from Real Madrid’s win over Athletic

Some of the main talking points after this impressive road win.

Athletic de Bilbao v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Real Madrid used the Villarreal Copa del Rey win as a springboard, and earned a very professional 2-0 win away at Athletic Club on Sunday night. An early goal from Karim Benzema and a late one from substitute Toni Kroos saw Los Blancos take the three points. Given how many rotations there were in the starting line-up, we had several pre-match questions to think about and now we have some more questions to discuss too ahead of a midweek cup derby.

Three answers

1. Would the Fede-Cama-Dani midfield live up to the hype?

It had been a long time since a Real Madrid line-up announcement generated as much pre-match excitement as this one. With Carlo Ancelotti being bolder than usual and naming a midfield trio of Fede Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga and Dani Ceballos, most Madridistas were buzzing and hoping to see much more dynamic midfield play at San Mamés. So could this group of younger midfielders live up to the hype and justify Ancelotti’s decision to bench both Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos, even though the Croatian and German were perfectly fit and healthy? Well, they absolutely did. Camavinga was especially impressive, almost fitting in better alongside his younger midfield colleagues than he has at times when partnering Modrić and Kroos. Ancelotti’s brave team selection more than paid off, while Kroos was able to come on and score as he saw the game out, meaning everyone should be happy.

2. Could Real Madrid exploit Athletic’s centre-back situation?

Athletic Club had a big problem coming into this game, as they were without their two most veteran centre-backs since Iñigo Martínez was injured and Yeray was suspended. That meant Ernesto Valverde had to start a makeshift central defensive pairing of Dani Vivian and Aitor Paredes. Although Vivian has proved to be a quality centre-back in his own right over the past couple of seasons, he isn’t used to being the leader of the back line. As for Paredes, this was the 22-year-old’s first ever start in LaLiga Santander. So, could Real Madrid exploit this major weakness of their opponents? Yes, they absolutely could, and it was Karim Benzema who managed to pull away from his markers just enough to turn in the opening goal.

3. Would Ancelotti bury the Rodrygo controversy by giving him minutes?

Even though Ancelotti already tried on Thursday night to play down his scolding of Rodrygo on the Estadio de la Cerámica sidelines, the Madrid press spent Friday and Saturday discussing it and wondering if Rodrygo would pay the price for his failure to shake the coach’s hand when he was substituted off. The Brazilian wasn’t included in the starting XI for this game, which was also a totally logical decision given Marco Asensio’s good form. But, would Rodrygo get on the pitch, to bury once and for all any talk of tension between the coach and player? In the 83rd minute, he was introduced, replacing a yellow-carded Vinícius, and assisted Kroos’ goal. So yes, surely we can now leave whatever happened at Villarreal in the past.

Three questions

1. Who starts in midfield in the Copa del Rey derby?

The midfield selection was the big pre-match talking point and it’s also a major talking point after this win. Real Madrid have an important Copa del Rey derby against Atlético Madrid on Thursday night and it’s unlikely that Ancelotti will repeat the same midfield trio of Valverde, Camavinga and Ceballos for that game, more for rotation’s sake than for anything else. So, who will start in the centre for this quarter-final? Will both Modrić and Kroos be back in the starting XI? If so, who will be the third piece of the puzzle? We might not find out the answer to this one until a couple of hours before kick-off on Thursday night.

2. What did Athletic Club ever do to offend Benzema?

With his goal in this match, Karim Benzema took his scoring tally in matches against Athletic Club up to 19 goals from 28 appearances. That makes them by far the team he has scored the most times against in his career, with Valencia second on his list of favourite victims with 16 goals from 27 appearances. He really has it in for Granada too, having scored 14 goals against the Andalusians in just 17 meetings, but Athletic Club remain clear at the top of this ranking after conceding once again to the centre-forward. What did they ever do to offend Benzema and make him so deadly in their clashes over the years?

3. When will Real Madrid return to the Bernabéu?

It really has been a long time since Real Madrid played at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. They haven’t done so since beating Cádiz all the way back on November 10th. Then came the World Cup pause and a series of away games, with the schedule designed this way so that the club could benefit from an extended run on the road to keep working on the Bernabéu. This game in Bilbao was the seventh away (or neutral site) match in a row, but now Real Madrid have three consecutive home games coming up in the space of eight days, starting with the Copa del Rey derby on Thursday night. It will be 77 days after the Cádiz clash when Real Madrid will finally have their homecoming.

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