Real Madrid will be hoping to stay alive in the La Liga title race when they travel to the Basque Country to take on Athletic Bilbao in the penultimate gameweek on Sunday.

With just two matchdays left in the 2020/21 La Liga campaign, the title race remains very much in the balance as leaders Atletico Madrid have just a two-point lead over Real Madrid in second and four clear of third-placed Barcelona. All three teams will be in action on Sunday, by the end of which, a clearer picture of the title scenario could emerge.

While Atletico Madrid clash against Osasuna at the Wanda Metropolitano and Barcelona take on Celta Vigo at Camp Nou, Real Madrid will have the toughest test on the day as they travel to San Mames to face off against Athletic Bilbao in what will be a tricky fixture for Zinedine Zidane & co.

It has been a season marred with injuries and inconsistencies for Real Madrid as the reigning champions have failed to capitalise on their rivals’ mishaps time and again, which has left them staring at the prospect of yielding their La Liga crown to neighbours Atletico. The 4-1 win over Granada in midweek was a return to form of sorts and the Merengues will be hoping to build on that and stay alive in the title race heading into the final matchday.

As for Athletic Bilbao, it has been a difficult campaign for the Basque Country outfit as they lost two Copa del Rey finals last month and are just about hanging on to their spot in the top half of the table. Indeed, Los Leones are currently ninth, just two points clear of Osasuna in 11th and have managed just two win in their last six league outings (D3), while losing their most recent fixture against minnows Huesca 1-0.

The reverse fixture saw Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1 with goals coming from Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema (2). However, Zidane’s side were beaten 2-1 by Marcelino’s men in the Supercopa de Espana semi-final earlier this year courtesy of a Raul Garcia double. And ahead of their latest meeting this weekend, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at both teams.

Team News & Tactics

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao will be without the services of five first-team players in captain Iker Muniain, Inigo Lekue, Peru Nolaskoain, Ander Capa and Yuri Berchiche when Real Madrid come visiting. However, they have been boosted by the return to full fitness of defender Yeray Alvarez, who makes the 19-man squad named by Marcelino.

As usual, Athletic Bilbao will set up in a 4-4-2 formation with two banks of four shielding the goal when they are not in possession as they look to hit their opponents on the break. Unai Simon is a certain starter between the sticks for the home team. Despite Yeray’s return, Inigo Martinez and Unai Nunez ought to be retained as the two centre-backs with Oscar De Marcos and Mikel Balenziaga occupying the full-back slots.

Moving into the middle of the park, the partnership of Dani Garcia and Unai Vencedor will be aiming to keep the threat of Luka Modric in check. Alex Berenguer should return to the side, slotting in on the left flank, after being benched against Huesca while Jon Morcillo ought to continue on the left in Muniain’s absence.

Raul Garcia and Inaki Williams have been overlooked in favour of Oihan Sancet and Asier Villalibre at the top in recent games. However, Marcelino could opt to go with the more experienced duo when the champions comne into town.

Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Simon; De Marcos, Nunez, Martinez, Balenziaga, Berenguer, D. Garcia, Vencedor, Morcillo; Williams, R. Garcia

Real Madrid

Real Madrid will once again be without key midfielder Toni Kroos, who remains in isolation after coming in contact with a person who has tested positive for coronavirus. Apart from the German, Los Blancos will also be without Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy – their first-choice backline basically while Lucas Vazquez also misses out. Marcelo, though, is fit and has been included in the travelling squad.

Zinedine Zidane will set his team up in the usual 4-3-3 formation with Thibaut Courtois lining up in goal. Eder Militao and Nacho, who have largely done well in the absence of Varane and Ramos, ought to be the two central defenders yet again while Alvaro Odriozola is in line to start at right-back after impressing in midweek. Youngster Miguel Gutierrez should be preferred to Marcelo at left-back.

Casemiro, as usual, will hold the fort in the middle of the park and strive to keep Real Madrid on the front-foot. Luka Modric, who was in scintillating touch in the win against Granada, will be the primary creative outlet for Los Blancos. Federico Valverde ought to take up the third midfield slot, with his energy and tenacity likely to come in handy against Athletic Bilbao.

Moving into the final third of the pitch, there is no looking past Karim Benzema in the centre-forward slot while Rodrygo Goes should get another run-out on the right-wing after doing well in the last game. Eden Hazard put on a bright cameo against Granada after coming on as a substitute and should be rewarded with a starting berth ahead of Vinicius Junior.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Courtois; Odriozola, Militao, Nacho, Gutierrez; Modric, Casemiro, Valverde; Rodrygo, Benzema, Hazard

Key Stats

  • Real Madrid haven’t lost even once in their last 16 games in La Liga.
  • Athletic Bilbao are undefeated in their previous nine league games at the San Mames Stadium.
  • Real Madrid, though, are unbeaten in nine of their last ten away games against Athletic Bilbao across all competitions.
  • Athletic Bilbao have won just one of their last 22 meetings with Real Madrid in La Liga (D5 L16).
  • Zinedine Zidane has not lost any of his nine games as Real Madrid coach against Athletic Bilbao in La Liga (W6 D3).

Player to Watch

Karim Benzema

With Real Madrid in a sticky situation and without captain Sergio Ramos to guide them through, the team will look to Karim Benzema to be the beacon as they look to retain their La Liga crown. Given the way things are, all Los Blancos can do is make sure that they don’t drop any points in the remaining to games and hope Atletico Madrid slip up.

However, that has been the problem for the champions for most of the season, as they have faltered to capitalise on crucial moments. So, on Sunday, in what will be a tricky game against an Athletic Bilbao side that is tough to beat at home, Benzema will need to step up and make sure that the team crosses the line with three points.

The Frenchman enjoys playing against Los Leones and has scored 14 goals in 23 meetings with Athletic Bilbao in all competitions – his joint-moist against any opponent in his entire career at Real Madrid (level with Granada). A big game for the veteran striker.

Prediction

Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Real Madrid

Athletic Bilbao are heading into the game on the back of a 1-0 defeat to Huesca whereas Real Madrid hit their stride with a 4-1 win over Granada last time out. That being said, Marcelino’s side are always a difficult proposition at home and have beaten Atletico Madrid at San Mames last month, so it will be anything but straightforward for the defending champions.

However, with Luka Modric clicking in the last game and Eden Hazard also showing signs of life, coupled with the presence of Karim Benzema, Zinedine Zidane & co. should have just about enough to clinch a crucial win against Athletic Bilbao, taking the title race into the final matchday of the season.

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