Monday, April 22, 2024

Real Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao: Talking points as Los Blancos maintain strong hold on La Liga top spot

Veselin Trajkovic in Editorial, La Liga 31 Mar 2024

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In the 30th round of the 2023/24 La Liga season, Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday evening, courtesy of a fantastic brace from Rodrygo Goes.

The game

Athletic had a surprisingly strong start to the game, pushing the hosts back during the opening minutes and forcing several corners. However, they failed to make it count and in the eighth minute, Real were already ahead. It was their first proper attacking move, which ended with Rodrygo Goes blasting the ball into the top corner from around 20 yards.

Some 15 minutes later, things got worse for Bilbao, with defender Yeray Alvarez forced to leave the pitch through injury. Dani Vivian was called from the bench to take his place in the heart of defence.

For the rest of the first half, the game was mostly contested between the two boxes, but while Bilbao took their first shot on target when the 45th minute had already expired, Real threatened very seriously twice more, through a well-controlled volley hit by Federico Valverde and saved by Julen Agirrezabala, and a header from Aurelien Tchouameni that went inches wide of the post.

After the break, Real moved to extend the lead straight away, and just three minutes in, they created a fine chance for Brahim Diaz, but the former AC Milan man struck the post from around 15 yards. Another three minutes later, Bilbao came close to leveling the score through Inaki Williams who caught a fine volley, but it went straight into the well-positioned Andriy Lunin in the Real goal. Diaz had another chance to increase Real’s lead soon after, but this time his shot from a similar position went over the bar.

A few minutes before the hour mark, Bilbao boss Ernesto Valverde felt it was time to try something different, having seen his team repeatedly failing to cause any difficulties for Los Blancos. Iñigo Ruiz de Galarreta, Malcom Adu Ares and Yuri Berchiche came on, with Beñat Prados, Gorka Guruzeta and Oscar de Marcos making way.

Chances came thick in the period that followed, and Bilbao could consider themselves lucky as referee Javier Alberola and his assistant pulled Rodrygo up for offside when the Real winger was already brought down inside the box. The thing is, the ball reached Rodrygo off a Bilbao player which means the offside call was highly questionable, and Real boss Carlo Ancelotti was positively bewildered by the decision. Dani Carvajal found himself with the ball inside the Bilbao box soon after, but he made a mess of it.

But there was no mess from Rodrygo in the 73rd minute when Real attacked quickly and Jude Bellingham released the Brazil international with a fine pass to the left. Rodrygo burst into the box, dropped one defender by moving the ball from the left to the right foot and ended up scoring from close range.

Valverde’s last throw of the dice was to withdraw Oihan Sancet from the middle of the park and hand Iker Muniain his 430th appearance in a Bilbao shirt. The freshly introduced captain nearly scored with his first touch as the ball clattered into his step on the edge of six yards, but Lunin was extremely calm and just picked it up.

With 10 minutes left on the clock, Ancelotti withdrew Rodrygo, Federico Valverde and Kroos, replacing them with freshly Lucas Vazquez, Luka Modric and Eduardo Camavinga. Diaz had previously made way for Joselu. The substitutions were obviously devised to freshen the lineup, turn the volume down and bring the contest to its end without much fuss. In the second minute of stoppage time, Eder Militao, fresh from a long injury absence, made his comeback in the place of Carvajal.

It’s fair to say that the visitors weren’t giving up just yet, but their attacks were mostly bereft of proper creativity and as the final whistle drew closer, frustration became notable on their faces.

Table rankings

This victory means Real have reaffirmed their eight-point lead at the top of the La Liga table ahead of Barcelona, who beat Las Palmas on Saturday hoping to close the gap. Ancelotti’s team are marching towards the league title with a firm step.

Athletic, meanwhile, remain fourth and that’s probably where they want to be when the season ends, but they could be pulled back to fifth on Monday evening when Atletico Madrid, one point behind at the moment, travel to face Villarreal. Spain might be granted a fifth spot in the Champions League next term, but neither Atletico nor Athletic will want to take that risk, and unless something dramatic happens, it seems very likely that the race for fourth place will come down to those two teams.

But for the next six days, Valverde and his team will be focusing solely on the Copa del Rey final, where they face Mallorca next weekend. Getting some silverware to show for their efforts would certainly make this season a success, regardless of what happens in the league.

Real look excellent ahead of Manchester City clash

Another hugely important aspect of this game when it comes to Real is that they’re really on form at the moment, and they’ll need all of their quality to come through next week when they face Manchester City at the Bernabeu, in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal blockbuster.

Ancelotti and his team will also be heartened by the fact that the Premier League champions don’t look nearly as formidable as they did when they dispatched Real from this competition last season. A few hours before this game, City played a surprisingly tame goalless draw against Arsenal, with both teams losing ground in the title race in Liverpool’s favour.

On the other hand, Ancelotti is, of course, experienced enough not to underestimate Pep Guardiola’s team, but at the moment, his players surely believe they have what it takes to make their way through this difficult tie.

Kepa surplus to requirements at both Real and Chelsea?

Thibaut Courtois, the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper for Real, suffered a serious knee injury ahead of the season and is nearing his return to action. Los Blancos signed Kepa Arrizabalaga on loan from Chelsea to plug the gap, but the former Bilbao shot-stopper now hasn’t stood between the posts for over two months, and it’s safe to say that Lunin is firmly ahead of him in the pecking order.

It’s probably also safe to say that Real will not be turning the loan into a permanent deal, and Kepa will return to Stamford Bridge at the end of the season. He probably won’t stay there either, with Robert Sanchez and Djordje Petrovic established as the first two choices. His contract will have a year left to run, and Chelsea will probably look to avoid releasing him as a free agent in 2025.

It’s a sad state of affairs for the 29-year-old, who remains the most expensive goalkeeper ever since Chelsea paid Bilbao €80 million for his services back in 2018.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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