Real Madrid build La Liga title momentum with Athletic Bilbao win
By Nick Wright in Bilbao
Last Updated: 20/03/17 12:45pm
La Liga leaders Real Madrid took a big step towards their first title since 2012 with a 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao on Saturday. Is there any stopping them? Nick Wright was at San Mames to see them pass one of their toughest remaining tests of the season...
It had been seven months since Athletic Bilbao last tasted defeat at San Mames. Since that 1-0 loss to Barcelona back in August, their stunning 53,000-capacity arena had hosted 16 wins and three draws. Athletic may sit seventh in La Liga, but their home record is among the best in Europe.
On a visit to El Catedral, as the locals call it, it soon becomes clear why. Athletic's old stadium was famous for its atmosphere, but the new San Mames, opened on the same site in 2013, already feels like home. With its stands so steep they are almost vertical and its huge roof stretching out overhead, it is a cauldron of noise where the furious, physical football is difficult to handle.
Real Madrid knew what was coming. Zinedine Zidane had warned of the challenge facing his side earlier in the week, while Luka Modric described it as one of their "most important" games of the season. "Every time we go there, it is difficult," he added in an interview with Sky Sports. "They fight and run like it's their last game."
And so it proved. Madrid departed the Basque Country with three invaluable points thanks to Casemiro's winner, but it required every ounce of effort. "We suffered a lot at a difficult ground but at the same time, we played with personality," said Zidane in his post-match press conference. "They didn't give up for a moment. They gave us difficulties until the end."
The warning signs were there from the start. The players emerged from the tunnel to an ear-splitting rendition of Athletic's anthem, and the electric atmosphere certainly affected Madrid early on. They were on the back foot from the first minute, with nervous touches and panicky clearances keeping them camped in their own half.
It seemed Zidane's side were on their way to falling behind for the sixth time in seven games, but this time they regained their composure to strike first. Cristiano Ronaldo, who had already had a goal flagged for offside and a low shot superbly saved by Athletic goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, crossed for Karim Benzema to apply the finish.
Madrid were on top but Athletic were soon testing them in other ways. Aduriz and Raul Garcia had running feuds with Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal and Casemiro, and tempers spilled over before the break. The visitors just about kept their heads, but Athletic started the second half strongly. When Iñaki Williams, Raul Garcia and Aduriz combined for the equaliser, it was deserved.
San Mames erupted, but this Madrid side have formidable powers of recovery. As Ernesto Valverde put it before the game: "When you are feeling good against them, that's when they are close to scoring a goal." Sure enough, Casemiro buried Toni Kroos' corner just three minutes later. Madrid-based newspaper AS called it a gol de oro. A golden goal.
Zidane went to drastic measures to see out the game, substituting Ronaldo for only the second time since September with 11 minutes still to play, but Madrid's slender advantage was enough.
The win was their third on the bounce in La Liga and it was clear how much it meant. Sergio Ramos pumped his fists in celebration at the final whistle, before rounding up his exhausted team-mates to applaud the travelling fans. "It was very important to win at San Mames," said Zidane afterwards.
Their five-point lead was cut to two when Barcelona beat 10-man Valencia on Sunday night, but Sevilla are all but out of the race after their 3-1 loss to fourth-placed Atletico. Zidane's side have to host all three of their top four rivals in the run-in and there are still defensive vulnerabilities, but they are unbeaten at the Bernabeu, they have a game in hand, and the momentum is with them.
Most important of all, however, is that they can face the challenges ahead knowing they have already navigated their toughest remaining away trip of the season. Madrid were pushed closer than ever at San Mames, but they left El Catedral looking up. When they return for their next visit, it might just be as La Liga champions.