Preview: Real Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao
Photo by A. Ware/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Real Madrid started the year away from home in Villarreal. Solari was in charge of the team that drew 2-2 on the night. Courtois, Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Ramos, Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, Benzema, Bale, and Lucas were the men who started that game. On January 3, 2019, Real Madrid was still a team very much in crisis. The void left by Ronaldo and Zidane was still glaring. Lopetegui’s incompetent man-management and inability to lift the team tactically was followed by Solari’s limitations and lack of consistency at the highest level.

Real Madrid are finishing the year at the Bernabéu. Their confidence, self-belief, the sheer love for the game and the sense of honoring the badge is very close to what it was during the time they kept winning Champions League titles for fun. Madrid will start the game without the ‘World Champions’ badge which belongs to Liverpool now. A glorious cycle has ended but the club is in the right path to start another one.

Zinedine Zidane has done it again. He has returned to the club and he has made Real Madrid rise from their ashes, once again. This is not an overly ambitious statement, just into 18 rounds of league games in the season. Real Madrid went to Barcelona without Hazard and Marcelo – their two most creative players for a fixture of this stature. But still, Zidane’s men tactically bullied Barcelona for most parts of the game. This is an unprecedented phenomenon even by Madrid’s standards when you consider how they usually surrender against Barcelona. Real Madrid couldn’t take all three points from that game but they came back to Madrid with something just as important if not more. Real Madrid are inflicting fear again. Real Madrid are feeling like ‘Real Madrid’ again. Welcome to our preview for the last game of the year.

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A battle of the Elites

Athletic is only the third team in La Liga who have never been relegated from the top-flight. The other two are Real Madrid and Barcelona of course. Bilbao’s tradition of focusing on local talent is tremendously respected in modern-day football. They are also one of the most successful clubs of Spain having won the league title eight times along with their 23 Copa del Rey titles. Only Barcelona have won more Copa del Rey titles than Bilbao. Athletic Bilbao legend Telmo Zarra was the former top-scorer in La Liga history with 367 goals before Leo Messi became the record goalscorer in the history of the first division.

A battle with this glorious club from the Basque country is never a dull affair for Real Madrid. It is in fact considered as one of the most significant fixtures during the course of a season. The last fixture of the year for Real Madrid on Sunday will be no different. They are still tied on points with Barcelona for the top position of the table. Real Madrid will be eager to finish the year on a winning note against this great rival.

Team News

Real Madrid

Real Madrid are missing the service of Casemiro in this game for his suspension due to five yellow cards. James and Lucas are still not fit enough to be in the 19-man squad but Brahim has made the cut. Marcelo, Hazard, and Asensio are going through their respective recovery processes. Here’s the squad for the final fixture of the year:

Alphonse Areola, Thibaut Courtois, Diego Altube, Dani Carvajal, Éder Militão, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Nacho Fernandez, Ferland Mendy, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Fede Valverde, Isco, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Luka Jović, Brahim, Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo Goes.

Athletic Bilbao

Gaizka Garitano has named a 19-man squad for their trip to the Spanish capital. Here’s the full list:

Unai Simón, Unai Núñez, Iñigo Martínez, Yeray, San José, Beñat, Unai López, Williams, Larrazabal, Herrerín, Dani García, Lekue, Vesga, Yuri, Ibai, Raúl García, Kodro, Balenziaga and Villalibre.

What to Expect

Real Madrid

Casemiro’s absence is going to be a concern for Zidane. But Real Madrid have shown against Valencia that they can still somehow control the midfield without the Brazilian. While this is only going to be an ad-hoc solution, but Zizou will have to improvise again.

Real Madrid only have four central midfielders in their 19-man squad so it is very unlikely that all of them will start in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. Zidane is more likely to go with his 4-3-3 formation in this game. Modric is expected to start ahead of Isco to make up for the experience Real Madrid will be missing due to Casemiro’s suspension. Fede Valverde showed against Valencia that he can be a good defensive option in the midfield if he needs to play that role.

Bale and Rodrygo should start with Benzema upfront. Bale had a decent return against Barcelona and Rodrygo’s reliability is growing each day.

Athletic Bilbao

Garitano has been using the 4-2-3-1 formation with two pivots. This is his strong suit and on Sunday at the Bernabéu, he will field a starting line up with the same formation. There is no lack of talent or experience in the Bilbao roster.

Garitano has been using Raul Garcia as the sole striker upfront in key matches. Athletic is missing Iker Muniain for this clash, hence, Dani Garcia and Mikel San Jose will have to take extra responsibility in the midfield. Inaki Williams is available for the game and he is always an exciting player to watch.

Bilbao has fewer worries in their defense. Capa, Yeray, Inigo Martinez and Yuri assemble a very strong defensive unit for them in front of goalkeeper Unai Simon.

Head to Head

In the last 17 meetings, Real Madrid have won 12 times while Athletic Bilbao could only manage a single win. The other four games were drawn.

Form

Real Madrid: D D W W W

Athletic: D L W W W

Probable Line-ups

Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Mendy; Valverde, Kroos, Modric, Rodrygo, Benzema, Bale.

Athletic: Simon; Capa, Yeray, Martinez, Yuri; San Jose, Garcia, Cordoba, Sancet, Inaki; Raul Garcia.

Players to Watch

Ferland Mendy, Real Madrid

Mendy has been a defensive rock for Real Madrid whenever he has played but his offensive play is still not up to the mark. Can he do something better against Athletic Bilbao?

Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Inaki Williams, Athletic Bilbao

Inaki’s burst of speed has always been a challenge for any opponent’s defense. Will it be the same for Real Madrid?

Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Referee

Adrian Cordero Vega will be the match official in charge of the game.

Key Quotes

“No, we are not lacking firepower. We couldn’t score the other day, but it was just in that particular game. It’s clear we can always improve, but it was just a specific game,” – Zinedine Zidane when asked if his team is lacking firepower in the attacking department.

“We are really excited, it’s been a very good year for us and what better way to end it than winning at Bernabéu. That’d be the icing on the cake after such an extraordinary year, so we must have ambition to compete and enthusiasm to spring a surprise.”- Gaizka Garitano

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