Real Madrid earned a valuable three points in San Mamés. The trip to play Athletic was the toughest away fixture remaining for Zinedine Zidane’s side, with a nod to the rescheduled game in Balaídos, which remains as a final bullet in the chamber. And Madrid won, although the overall panorama wasn’t entirely soothing. Athletic had the better of the game, the home side came out fantastically well in the first quarter of an hour and maintained a grip on the fabric of the match throughout. Karim Benzema pulled Madrid out of their early funk, dropping deep to seek the ball and get his team’s engine going. He was involved in three good moves that halted Athletic’s impetus and he was on hand to score the opening goal from a good ball from Cristiano Ronaldo.
To see Benzema play in San Mamés lends optimism and poses a question: why does he not always play like that? I remember reading an interview with the bullfighter Curro Romero, who said: “If I always fought well I wouldn’t be a matador; I’d be a grafter.” Benzema is a matador. The grafter is another pillar of this Madrid side and in San Mamés (as is pretty much always the case) it was Casemiro. The Brazilian tackled, intercepted, made hits, took hits, started the move for the first goal with a beautiful ball for Ronaldo and then scored the second, from a corner, stealthily finding space among all of Sergio Ramos’ markers. It was a timely goal because Athletic, who had scored an equaliser moments before, were shaken by the swift response and took a while to get back into the contest.
While Benzema and Casemiro flew the flag, Luka Modric has not recovered his early season rhythm and Gareth Bale even less so. Ronaldo’s pace is not what it once was (although his persistence remains intact) and Marcelo was too careless at the back. Iñaki Williams had the better of the Brazilian and provided the ball for Athletic’s goal, crossing for Raúl García, who nodded back across goal to Aritz Aduriz to head home. Otherwise, Athletic lacked a little cutting edge in front of goal. That gave Madrid hope and the visitors scored twice from very few chances. The balance of the match was a bad-tempered, intense and hard-hitting affair, but with sportsmanship at the end with hugs and handshakes all round. These two clubs share a mutual respect from the depths of history.