Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid
Sep 1, 2013; 10:00 GMT
The summer started with Gareth Bale. The summer is about to end and it is still about Gareth Bale. The Welshman’s transfer saga is now bordering on the ridiculous. While Fabregas’ transfer saga involved two clubs jostling for different things – one willing to buy and the other resisting, Bale’s is entirely different. The world knows that Spurs are willing to sell, Real Madrid are willing to pay, Bale is willing to move, but still the deal is not done or at least not made official. One more day, and hopefully the circus would end.
In his pre-match conference, Carlo Ancelotti was asked about Bale more than a couple of times, but he passed on and while he may be thinking about how to integrate the Welshman into his plans, he has the more difficult task of preparing against Athletic Bilbao, who have started the season on a terrific note.
Real Madrid were ominous in their pre-season but their La Liga campaign so far has been a dampener. They have found it difficult to score goals and Ancelotti is still struggling to get his team formation correct. While a couple of weeks ago, the team was balanced, suddenly rumors concerning Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria have shot up and are bound to have some effect on the integrity of the squad.
Athletic, on the other hand, have no such problems. After enduring a difficult season under Marcelo Bielsa, the club decided to sign Ernesto Valverde, who rescued Valencia last season and incidentally started his coaching with Athletic Bilbao and had represented them as a player for six years from 1990-96. The change in coach has brought an immediate impact and the Basque club have won both their games played so far highlighting their quality.
Valverde made great moves in the transfer market, buying Benat and Kike Sola from Real Betis and Osasuna respectively after the departure of Fernando Llorente on a free transfer to Juventus. Ander Herrera has been the subject of a 30 M bid from Manchester United but the club has dismissed the bid and claimed that only his buy-out amount of 36 M and the willingness of the player would force them to sell.
Real Madrid are still looking to offload Coentrao and after Kaka’s announcement that he would like to leave, the club must seal their deals as quickly as possible to decrease the wage bill and balance their transfer costs involved in the buying of Gareth Bale.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Carlo Ancelotti appears to have penned down his first choice defensive personnel. Iker Casillas is clearly not first choice and this should not come as a huge surprise. Diego Lopez has been in terrific form since signing for the club and has hardly put a foot wrong making him the rightful custodian for Real Madrid. Casillas will surely be unhappy with his bench role but he has to deal with it professionally enough because this is Ancelotti’s decision, a new coach who had nothing to do with last year’s alleged politics of Jose Mourinho. The coach has also stated that Diego Lopez will remain first choice goalkeeper currently.
Dani Carvajal appeared to be the first choice when Ancelotti fielded his team against Real Betis. But his poor defensive performance appears to have tilted the scales in favor of Alvaro Arbeloa who was assuring against Granada and will go up against the skillful Iker Muniain. Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo will complete the defense.
Xabi Alonso is still weeks away from playing, Asier Illarramendi and Sami Khedira have been declared fit and have been included in the squad. The Bernabeu may finally get to watch Illarramendi in action for the first time, most probably as a late substitute.
Isco has been decent while Ronaldo is still being deployed in various positions to help the team find balance. Benzema has scored in both the games so far but his performances still don’t exude confidence.
Athletic will press and move the ball skillfully and will present Real Madrid with the toughest test of their campaign so far. The defense needs to be solidified and will be tested severely by Herrera, Muniain and Susaeta.
Probable starting line-up (4-2-3-1): Lopez; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Khedira; Ozil, Isco, Ronaldo; Benzema
Ernesto Valverde will undoubtedly be motivated with his perfect start to the campaign and would love to continue his run against Real Madrid. Benat has been the key man for them and while they have not dominated games, they look better composed and tactically disciplined under Valverde.
The trio of Susaeta, Herrera and Muniain will hold the key for the visiting Basque side and all three have the ability to stamp their authority on the game. With Llorente leaving, Aritz Aduriz will lead the line.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Herrerin; Iraola, Gurpegui, Ekiza, Saborit ; Benat, Iturraspe; Susaeta, Herrera, Muniain; Aduriz
Player To Watch Out For
Mesut Ozil was furious with his substitution against Granada and though he was regularly substituted under Mourinho, the frustration stems form the fact that he has been player out of position and has failed to make any impact on the games so far. His hunger therefore will know no bounds as he would be keen on stamping his authority sooner rather than later.
Real Madrid 2 – 1 Athletic Bilbao
Real Madrid have been astounding at home for an year now and it would be extremely difficult for Athletic to stem the streak but they can be expected to cause the home team some big problems. The first big test for Carlo Ancelotti but Real Madrid are expected to win this one.