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Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / AFP7 / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images
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El Viejo Clasico, a game certainly not to take lightly. Real Madrid versus Athletic Club has historically been an intense clash, and this afternoon’s contest is destined to be similar, as both sides come into the match with a lot on the line.

Madrid play before Barcelona, meaning three points for Los Blancos will give them a seven-point cushion, albeit temporarily. A defeat for Madrid could trigger a response from the Catalans, who could then reduce Madrid’s lead at the summit to a single point when they face in-form Villarreal later this evening.

For Athletic, it’s all about European spots, and although they’re in a battle for one – currently six points behind fifth-placed Villarreal – they’ll know that their best chance of qualifying for the UEFA Europa League rests with the Copa Del Rey final, which is expected to take place after the league campaign.

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But nevertheless, the hosts come into this one among the top three sides in the division, at least on form since the lockdown. Their back-to-back wins against Mallorca, and then Valencia on Wednesday night were impressive, and they’ve only lost once since the return, and that was 1-0 to Barcelona, a game in which they had opportunities to put the reigning champions away.

The league leaders come into this with six wins out of six, the first time they’ve won six consecutive La Liga games since 2017. A lot will depend on how well Madrid continue to defend, but with Raphael Varane definitely out of the game, and also Marcelo likely to come in for Ferland Mendy, the left channel is certainly one Athletic will look to capitalise upon. Zinedine Zidane’s side have only conceded 21 goals this year, that’s Madrid’s best record at this stage in a domestic campaign since the 1987-88 season, when they conceded 20.

The key talking point

As mentioned above, a lot will rely on how well Eder Militao slots in next to Sergio Ramos. The issue Real might face as a consequence of Zidane rotating Mendy for Marcelo, what usually happens is that Marcelo plays well up the pitch, and Ramos is then left with the responsibility of covering the area which Marcelo has left behind. It could get even more dangerous for Madrid, because usually, when the above occurs, Varane then uses his pace to sniff opportunities for the opposition in the space Ramos has vacated to fill-in for Marcelo, and so the question is, can Militao fill Varane’s void? The initial signs were impressive, but since the Copa Del Rey exit, Zidane hasn’t used the Brazilian a great deal, and all of sudden, he was thrown in at the deep-end in the first half against Getafe in midweek, although, he did appear to be composed.

Madrid arrive in Bilbao without Eden Hazard too, which opens it up for Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes. However, the interesting point to discuss is if Zidane will yet again use a diamond formation, that means Isco will start again. Madrid had issues against Getafe’s unrelenting pressing, and despite having his four trusted midfielders, they couldn’t string passing patterns or create a rhythm, it was a painful first hour to watch from the league leaders, and that’s partly because Isco isn’t as match-ready or match-fit as Zidane would hope. So, I think although the diamond is enforced to keep things tight in the first period of the match – which is key when you’re visiting a stadium like San Mames – I feel Zidane won’t repeat the diamond formation.

Instead, Fede Valverde will have a huge role to play in midfield next to Toni Kroos and Casemiro, and he’ll go with two out-and-out wingers, most likely Vinicius and Marco Asensio, although don’t be surprised to see Rodrygo starting on the right-wing, after a very positive substitute performance against Getafe, helping to swing that contest in Madrid’s favour.

La Liga form coming into this game

Athletic Bilbao: DDWLWW
Real Madrid: WWWWWW

The verdict

Part two of Real’s toughest week in the run-in, I truly believe if they somehow come through this test, then they’ll be champions. Zidane conceded that the midweek clash against Getafe was the most difficult all season, and this one is most definitely going to be tougher, because of how tired his players will be. I think rotating Mendy could be costly, and therefore, I think Zidane needs to avoid such a risk, but I expect Madrid to come through, simply because they seem to have the answers since returning, and they appear to be handling every moment of every game, professionally and with total dedication. Tactically, this contest could be intriguing, whether Gaizka Garitano chooses to go with Iker Munian and Iñaki Williams up front, or both of them either side of the in-form Raul Garcia, Madrid’s defence and midfield are going to be in for a busy night, which makes Valverde’s presence all the more important, to help Madrid transition efficiently, and then create opportunities on the counter. Ultimately, I think Madrid will edge it, a game that could well decide the destination of the league title.

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