Real Madrid had to dig deep at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano before sealing a 3-1 win against Athletic Club, who played with 10-men for the vast majority of the contest.
Contrary to reports in Spain, Zinedine Zidane didn’t ring many changes from the team that faced and beat Atletico Madrid at the weekend, other than Fede Valverde coming in for the suspended Casemiro.
But it was the visitors who came out looking like the better side. Oscar de Marcos had the first opportunity in the opening minutes, but he put his header wide from his central position inside the box. The chance came from Lucas Vazquez being hurried on the half-way line, and the transitional play was superb from the Basques. Another big chance for the visiting side materialised straight away, again by crowding Madrid out in the middle, this time Iñaki Williams was through on the counter, but he put his effort wide of the post.
Then came the moment which perhaps changed the contest. Raul Garcia had already picked up a booking for a bad challenge on Luka Modric a few minutes earlier, but just before the quarter of an hour mark, a second clumsy challenge, this time on Toni Kroos, earned him a second yellow and the Basques were down to 10-men. The job just got a great deal tougher for Bilbao.
Real’s first major opening came via Vinicius Junior, who may have had a penalty when the ball struck Ander Capa on the hand, but the referee didn’t even consider consulting VAR, Athletic let off the hook. But the hosts slowly grew into the contest, and were beginning to make possession count. Modric’ flat zipped cross fell to Vinicius, who’s instinctive shot was kept out by Unai Simon.
And the chances kept coming for Madrid, created on the left once more, Ferland Mendy with the ball in this time. Vinicius scuffed his header from the cross, but the recache fell to Fede, who toe-poked it wide. All the possession had to lead to something, and eventually it did. Vinicius laying it on a plate for Kroos, who rifled in his first La Liga goal of the season from the edge of the box.
As good as the defending champions were towards the end of the first half, it was a brilliant start to the second from Bilbao. And their fast start was rewarded with an equaliser. Capa evaded challenges by Vinicius and Ferland in a run which started well inside his own half, before initially forcing a save from Thibaut Courtois, and the rebound falls back to him to which he scuffed in.
Real tried to respond immediately, but Vinicius’ goal was ruled out for offside after the Brazilian needed two bites of the cherry. Which was his final act of the match, as Marco Asensio replaced him, with Isco replacing Valverde. The substitutes worked, because a corner taken quickly by Asensio, who passed it to Dani Carvajal, had Karim Benzema launching himself to put Madrid ahead with a bullet header.
Bilbao were rocked. And although they attempted to find a route back, they were kept out, until an opportunity presented itself. Second half substitute Mikel Vesga found himself in a gaping gap in Madrid’s back four, and his shot forced Courtois into a massive save, which saved the three points.
Straight down the other end from the clearance, Modric slid in Benzema who sealed the win with his second of the match, and ninth of the domestic campaign. A massive win for Real, who go joint top at the summit of La Liga with their third straight win in the league, and fourth in all competitions, even if it’s temporarily.
Up next for Real Madrid?
Who? Eibar CF
When? Sunday 20th December @ 21:00 CET
Where? Municipal de Ipurua