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Real see off challenge of Athletic at Bernabéu

Cristiano Ronaldo struck twice as Real defeated Athletic 4-2 at the Bernabéu to maintain Zidane's perfect home record.

Real see off challenge of Athletic at Bernabéu

Athletic Bilbao arrived at the Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday afternoon with the weight of history on their shoulders and an already gruelling season under their belts. Ernesto Valderde’s side had played eight competitive matches before the end of August and were missing key players on the day in the suspended Iñaki Williams and Mikel San José, as well as injury absentees Raúl García, Ibai Gómez and Markel Susaeta. Athletic had also not beaten Real on their own turf since 2005.

Zinedine Zidane addressed his primary headache by fielding Dani Carvajal at left back to cover for the injured Marcelo and Danilo at right back, the Brazilian’s familiar position but one that he did not excel in during his only previous start under the Real boss at Betis. In response to a lightweight midfield in Granada last weekend, Zidane also elected to draft Mateo Kovacic in place of Isco, a little more whip by which to tame the Lions’ combative midfield and some extra cover on the left. Beñat and Ander Iturraspe were handed the task of breaking up Real’s high line of pressure with Sabin Merino, Iñigo Lekue and Javier Eraso providing the legs for lone striker Aritz Aduriz.

But despite Athletic’s clear intent to take the game to Real, it was the home side that took the lead. A hallmark of Zidane’s Real Madrid has been the speed with which they look to hit visiting sides with an early goal. Against Depor it required 15 minutes; both Sporting and Espanyol held on for seven. On Saturday, Cristiano Ronaldo breached the Bilbao back line with just three minutes on the clock, picking up a pass from Karim Benzema after the France striker had won a 50-50 ball in midfield and turning inside the area to hammer a shot into the far corner.

Most sides that visit the Bernabéu would have buckled under the blow, but Athletic’s reply was swift. Raphaël Varane lost his composure and played a ball back to Keylor Navas that the keeper could do little with other than claw it to where he thought safety lay. But Real’s left was unguarded and the lurking Javier Eraso stole in to stroke home calmly.

The France defender, who is widely regarded as a future captain and was personally recommended by his current coach, had an afternoon to forget and found his way into the book shortly afterwards. Buoyed by the unexpected gift, Athletic sought to capitalize and carved out a slew of chances, Navas making a flying save to keep the scores level and Aritz Aduriz hitting the bar from a rasping Mikel Balenziaga delivery.

Carvajal, who has excelled at right back this season, had a five-minute meltdown on the left and was beaten twice by the onrushing attack. Óscar de Marcos prodded wide when he was teed up and Athletic had another shot blocked as Real briefly buckled.

Enter stage right James Rodríguez. The Colombia international was selected ahead of Isco to provide a spark in the final third and he duly delivered. Gathering the ball in the right channel, Rodríguez cut inside and unleashed an unstoppable shot that curled expertly past the dive of Gorka Iraizoz.

Athletic’s response remained positive. Balenziaga continued to push forward and slung in a few dangerous crosses, Sabin Merino going close with a header and then seeing a shot blocked by Carvajal. At the very least Valverde would have been flicking through his match plans to the page marked “2-1 down at half time.”

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Ronaldo, though, had other ideas and set up Toni Kroos inside the area. The Germany international resisted the temptation to snatch at it, pulling the ball down and turning to fire past Iraizoz.

The Portuguese operated on the left for the majority of the game and looked more threatening than he had done in recent weeks when drifting into the middle. The midfield triangle of Kroos, Modric and Kovacic also allowed Benzema to do what he does best, dropping deep and linking the midfield and attack.

In the absence of Williams, Athletic lacked a genuine threat out wide and were forced more often than not to attempt a path through the middle, which Real were able to counter easily. Balenziaga and Iñigo Lekue plowed a furrow on the left flank that eventually forced Zidane into a change in the second half, Carvajal moving to the right and Nacho coming in on the left.

Athletic never lost belief in the second period but coming back from 3-1 down was always going to be a tall order. Valverde attempted to freshen things up by throwing on Iker Muniain, Gorka Elustondo and academy striker Borja Viguera. But Athletic’s attacks gradually lessened in intensity as Real wrested control of the tempo from the visitors. Merino went close with a header and Aduriz almost capitalized on a rare error from Kroos but Navas was alert to the danger and off his line before the striker could adjust his feet.

As Athletic tired mentally and physically Real continued to circle like sharks, seeking a first bite of previously too feisty prey. Substitute Lucas Vázquez provided the cross, cutting out the entire Athletic back line who had failed to spot Ronaldo lurking on the far side. Invitation accepted, the Portuguese added his second of the afternoon.

Athletic pulled back a late consolation through Elustondo, but too late for the Lions to rattle the home side’s cage. The win maintained Zidane’s perfect record at the Bernabéu but there was a sour note when he lost another defender, Varane getting his marching orders late on for an apparent elbow on Aduriz. With Pepe and Marcelo currently on the sidelines Zidane can ill-afford to lose any more players with Roma and Atlético coming up. The Frenchman has yet to put out a team more than once in a week. Valverde has hardly had that luxury since Athletic’s season started in July.


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