Real Madrid will be hoping to keep pace with champions Barcelona when they welcome Athletic Bilbao to the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.
Matchday 18 of the 2019-20 La Liga season will come to an end on Sunday, with an intriguing match-up. Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will be the last teams in action in the Spanish top-flight in 2019, as they lock horns at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday night.
Real Madrid have found a stable footing in the last couple of months after blowing hot and cold at the start of the season. RCD Mallorca were the last side to beat Los Blancos, back in October, with Zinedine Zidane’s men going unbeaten in 12 matches since then. But, the hosts failed to grab sole lead of La Liga, after being held to a goalless draw by Barcelona earlier this week.
Athletic Bilbao, too, were in action in the midweek, beating Intercity Sant Joan d’Alacant 3-0 in the second round of the Copa del Rey. In La Liga, the Basque outfit have been beaten just once in their last eight outings, dating back to the last week of October. This run of results has catapulted them to 8th on the table, just three points adrift of fourth-placed Getafe.
The corresponding fixture last season ended in a 3-0 win for Real Madrid, with Karim Benzema scoring a match-winning hat-trick. Ahead of the latest meeting between the two sides, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the encounter.
Team News & Tactics
Zinedine Zidane has seen some of his injury woes ease up heading into the weekend. James Rodriguez has returned to training this week, although the game has come too soon for him. Apart from the Colombian international, the Real Madrid manager will be without four first-team players against Athletic Bilbao.
Marcelo (calf), Eden Hazard (ankle), Lucas Vazquez (toe) and Marco Asensio (knee) all remain on the sidelines and will only return at different stages in 2020. The major absentee for Real Madrid, though, will be Casemiro, after the Brazilian picked up his fifth booking against Barcelona.
Casemiro’s absence means Toni Kroos could start at the base of the three-man midfield, while Luka Modric will replaced the suspended Brazilian. Defensive support for Kroos will come in the form of Federico Valverde, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise this season.
Karim Benzema will lead the line for Real Madrid once again, hoping to return to goalscoring ways this weekend. Benzema is likely to be flanked by Brazilian teenagers Rodrygo Goes and Vinicius Jr. after the duo were omitted from the starting lineup last time out.
At the back, Sergio Ramos could be rested after he seemed to have picked up a knock against Barcelona. However, the Real Madrid captain is likely to start alongside Raphael Varane at the heart of the defence once again, with Ferland Mendy and Dani Carvajal completing the backline.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Mendy; Valverde, Kroos, Modric; Rodrygo, Benzema, Vinicius Jr.
Like his counterpart in the Real Madrid dugout, Gaizka Garitano, too, will be without a suspended first-team star, with regular right-back Ander Capa serving a one-match ban. Apart from Capa, the Athletic Bilbao boss will be without three other first-team players, with Oscar de Marcos, Iker Muniain and Aritz Aduriz all on the treatment tables.
Unai Simon will once again take his place in goal, where he is likely to be kept busy by a barrage of Real Madrid attacks. However, Simon will hope for some solid cover from the back four, which will comprise of Inigo Lekue, Yuri Berchiche, Inigo Martinez and Yeray Alvarez.
Garitano will employ twin banks of four in the defensive phase to stifle Real Madrid’s build-up play, with the two wide men supporting the two central midfielders. Mikel San Jose and Dani Garcia will partner up in the midfield double pivot, with Garcia charged with transitioning from defence to attack.
Raul Garcia has surprisingly been installed as the central striker in recent games, with the veteran midfielder more of a False Nine, dropping deep to stretch the Real Madrid defence. Garcia’s movements will allow the wingers, Inaki Williams and Inigo Cordoba to attack the central areas, leaving the full-backs to provide the width in the final third.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Simon; Lekue, Alvarez, Martinez, Berchiche; Dani Garcia, San Jose; Williams, Unai Lopez, Cordoba; Raul Garcia
- Athletic Bilbao have not beaten Real Madrid away from home since 2005, drawing one and losing 14 of their last 15 trips to the Bernabeu.
- Real have won six and drawn two of their eight home matches in La Liga this term, scoring 20 goals and conceding just six times.
- Athletic Bilbao have won just one of their last ten La Liga games on the road (D4 L5).
- Only Atletico Madrid (10 goals conceded) boast a better defensive record in La Liga this term than Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao (both 12 goals conceded).
- Lionel Messi (13) is the only player to have scored more goals in La Liga this season than Karim Benzema (12).
Player to Watch
Real Madrid might have improved considerably compared to their struggles last season, but their dependence on Karim Benzema has not dwindled one bit. Benzema has continued being one of the most prolific players in the division, while also providing five assists to add to his 12 goals.
That he is in the thick of the race to win the Pichichi award this season will only serve as added motivation for the Frenchman to keep up with Lionel Messi, who netted in Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Alaves on Saturday. In doing so, Benzema could inspire Real Madrid to yet another win.
Real Madrid 3-1 Athletic Bilbao
Real Madrid have been on quite a run over the last two months, but in Athletic Bilbao, they face another stiff test after drawing back to back games against Valencia and Barcelona. With Barcelona winning on Saturday, a decisive result is important for Los Blancos to keep pace with their rivals, which is what should drive them on Sunday.
Athletic Bilbao, on the other hand, have been on a solid run of their own and will make it difficult for Real Madrid to run away with the game. Expect a keenly contested affair before Zinedine Zidane & co. settle in and get back to winning ways. The Hard Tackle predicts a 3-1 win for Real Madrid, who end 2019 on a high.