Real Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao: What You Need to Know
Real Madrid have won five of their last six La Liga games whilst Athletic Bilbao are on a two-game winning streak.
With Barcelona and Atlético Madrid ahead of Real, Los Blancos cannot afford to lose. Bilbao may not be as undisciplined as Espanyol and Rayo Vallecano, but Marcelo Bielsa's side is getting there.
If proceedings begin to go south for Bilbao, don't be surprised if a skirmish breaks out.
Here's what you need to know about the game.
Marcelo Bielsa's Circus
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Jazel Morffe, a Bleacher Report commenter, made a great point about Marcelo Bielsa:
Bielsa is indeed fascinating, but I guess there must be some reason(s) why his nickname is "El Loco". I think his teams display his personality: brilliant, but capable of self-destroying at any time.
If you've tuned in to watch Athletic Bilbao play fast, free-flowing and tactical football—you've been duped into watching a football soap opera.
Javi Martínez was crucial in breaking up plays. He averaged 3.1 tackles and 5.2 interceptions per league game last season. He's now a Bayern Munich player.
Bilbao seem insistent on making Fernando Llorente's life miserable by refusing to sell him. They'd rather let him leave on a Bosman than accept a derisive transfer fee in January. He's now a bench warmer.
When things don't go Ander Herrera's way, he lashes out. As a result, he's suspended for the game against Real Madrid.
Iker Muniain has spent more time wagging his finger at referees and engaging in handbags than scoring or proving goals.
Bielsa was lauded as a tactical genius after he outfoxed Sir Alex Ferguson in the UEFA Europa League last season.
Well, that was then. The current Bielsa seemingly has no control over this Bilbao side that have forgotten how to defend.
They have conceded the third most goals in the league and they allow opponents to shoot 17.3 times per game.
The positive spin is that goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz is being made to work for his money.
Bielsa is essentially in the same position André Villas-Boas was at Chelsea. It's not a matter of if, it's more a matter of when he'll be fired.
José Mourinho's Real Madrid
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There were so many talking points after Real Madrid's 2-1 win over Levante.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo showing resiliency in playing through the pain barrier after being elbowed.
2. Xabi Alonso proving to be unreliable from 12 yards out. He failed to score from the spot in the 2005 UEFA Champions League final (though he did convert the rebound). During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, he placed his first penalty past Paraguayan goalkeeper Justo Villar but was forced to re-take it. Villar saved the second attempt. Alonso was denied in the penalty shootout at Euro 2012 by Portuguese keeper Rui Patrício.
3. Ángel Di María's selfish streak could have cost Real dearly, if not for a certain 20-year-old coming off the bench to score.
4. The 20-year-old's name is Álvaro Morata. If he can't make it at Real Madrid, the club may as well close down their youth system.
5. Sergio Ballesteros punching Pepe. Here's an excerpt from Sid Lowe's blog at Guardian.co.uk:
Levante's captain Sergio Ballesteros is the biggest player in La Liga, a beast of a man eight foot tall and four wide with a neck like Mike Tyson. There were four people in the room: Ronaldo, the doctor, Ballesteros and the man Ballesteros had come for, the Real Madrid defender Pepe. So, he grabbed Pepe by the neck and punched him.
Previewing Real Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao
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Predicted Starting XIs
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1)
Iker Casillas; Álvaro Arbeloa, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Fábio Coentrão; Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira; Ángel di María, Mesut Özil, Cristiano Ronaldo; Álvaro Morata.
This is the best time to throw Morata into the starting XI because his confidence is sky high after scoring the winning goal against Levante. It's a home game against a discombobulated Athletic Bilbao defence.
This lineup could be significantly different if José Mourinho rotates his players in preparation for their UEFA Champions League game against Premier League champions Manchester City.
Athletic Bilbao (4-2-3-1)
Gorka Iraizoz; Andoni Iraola, Mikel San José, Fernando Amorebieta, Jon Aurtenetxe; Carlos Gurpegi, Ander Iturraspe; Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain, Isma López; Aritz Aduriz.
The suspensions of Ander Herrera and Óscar de Marcos means Real Madrid should dominate in midfield. Even though Gurpegi has been a centre-back this season, he played in midfield for Joaquín Caparrós.
With Aduriz overachieving in scoring eight goals in 11 league games, expect to see Fernando Llorente warming the benches.
Real Madrid should win this game convincingly, especially if Marcelo Bielsa throws caution to the wind—which he will. He's the type of manager that prefers to lose 3-0 while playing crazy, attacking football than playing out a pragmatic draw for a point.
Please comment below with your thoughts.