Real Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao: 6 Things We Learned

Nick Akerman@NakermanFeatured ColumnistNovember 18, 2012

Real Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao: 6 Things We Learned

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    Real Madrid's 5-1 thrashing of Athletic Bilbao served up plenty of talking points.

    Jose Mourinho's side look to be in full flow after a disappointing start to the season. In the opposite dugout, Marcelo Bielsa's team are going the opposite way after a combination of poor results and dressing room unrest.

    What did we learn from this fixture? Read on to find out.

Madrid's Squad Strength Is Coming to Fruition

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    Madrid's squad is amongst the strongest in the world.

    Unfortunately for Jose Mourinho, key individuals have spent time on the sidelines this year. Players have been forced to ply their trade out of favoured positions, leading to a number of disappointing performances.

    Fitness problems are starting to ease.

    Most of Madrid's superstars are back—and it shows. Against Athletic Bilbao, we saw a number of excellent displays. While Luka Modric, Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso took control of the midfield, Madrid's substitutes came on and contributed just as admirably.

    Everyone is fighting for a place in the starting lineup. This is absolutely vital for a club of Madrid's size. Mourinho's men are expected to compete for every trophy—having strength in depth is the only way to sustain a real challenge.

    It's hard to suggest exactly who will start in Madrid's upcoming Champions League clash against Manchester City.

    Sami Khedira came on and screwed in the fifth goal, Alvaro Morata entered the pitch with supreme confidence and Angel Di Maria looked sharp in possession. Add Kaka and Michael Essien to this list, and it's clear to see Mourinho has plenty to choose from.

    Competition in the team will force individuals to continuously up their game. Madrid fans should be excited.

Benzema's Ruthlessness Is Coming at the Right Time

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    Gonzalo Higuain has been excellent this season. The injured Argentine has netted seven La Liga goals, silencing any critics that may question his Madrid credentials.

    Karim Benzema's domestic form hasn't been so special. Luckily for the Frenchman, his display against Bilbao was absolutely stunning.

    The Sky Sports commentary team compared Benzema's performance to Brazilian Ronaldo's heyday. It's difficult to disagree with such analysis.

    Madrid's physical forward constantly found space amongst an uncertain defence. He sat on the shoulder, dropped deep and attacked with an exciting directness.

    Benzema hit the target from three out of four shots. One brilliant finish added to Madrid's total, while another looped off Jon Aurtenetxe and into the net. Bilbao were only ever at the Bernabeu to make up the numbers.

    The former Lyon striker also produced five key passes and one thoughtful assist in an outing that underlined his best attributes.

    With Manchester City on the horizon, Benzema's ruthlessness is here at the right time.

Luka Modric Will Play a Key Role in Any Madrid Success

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    Luka Modric's form has continued to improve over recent weeks.

    His performance against Bilbao may have been his best in a Madrid shirt. This was a classy, confident and often subtle 90 minutes for the Croat.

    The former Tottenham player enjoyed a great amount of freedom against Marcelo Bielsa's side. Modric regularly picked up loose balls, dribbled past opponents and moved possession on with style. He burst towards Bilbao's area, providing a dynamic middle ground between the duties of Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil.

    Modric completed 87 percent of his 38 passes. He landed each of the four long balls attempted. Madrid's mini magician fired seven crosses into Bilbao's box, more than anyone else on the pitch. The fact he was in the position to do this indicated Modric's reigns have loosened.

    Mourinho will also be pleased with his midfielder's defensive adeptness. Modric completed a match high of six interceptions. He often nicked the ball off Bilbao's dawdling midfield, providing Madrid with the perfect opportunity to spring forward.

    A truly sensational performance. Modric won't grab many headlines in his Madrid career, but his ability is more than capable of setting them up.

Selfless Madrid Verge on the Unplayable

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    Real Madrid scored five and Cristiano Ronaldo didn't bag one? Heavens! He must be on a terrible stint of form! I haven't included four slides dedicated to the Portuguese star; I must be crazy!

    Jose Mourinho's team does not rest on the shoulders of Ronaldo. As Bilbao discovered, Real Madrid are far more frightening when the side works for each other. This was a selfless team performance where individual superstars were dismissed for collective greatness.

    Ronaldo didn't score, but he played brilliantly. He allowed teammates to attack, played decisive passes and dribbled with urgency.

    Karim Benzema provided another example of selflessness. He squared the ball to provide Mesut Ozil with an easy goal. Instead of trying his luck for the hat trick, the forward contributed an assist that guaranteed breathing space for the entire team.

    This attitude echoed throughout Madrid's squad. The spread of goal scorers and assist providers sums this up succinctly.

Athletic Bilbao Are Moving Backwards at a Ridiculous Pace

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    Athletic Bilbao rocketed into the consciousness of European football last season.

    Even the great Manchester United couldn't stop the Spanish side from reaching the Europa League final. Marcelo Bielsa also masterminded a run to the Copa Del Rey final, although both tournaments ended in disappointment.

    This success forced a lot of attention onto the club. Key players such as Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez became the suspect of prying eyes. Martinez moved on, Llorente will move on and Muniain appears to have lost the ability to play football.

    Bilbao's performance was universally disappointing. The team lacked any sense of character or grit, two attributes the manager worked so hard to install.

    The visitors' attack amounted to very little threat. Apart from a smart Ibai Gomez finish, Iker Casillas could have brought his duvet and pillows into the goal mouth.

    Rather predictably, even when Llorente was afforded time on the pitch, the Spanish international was ineffective. He needs to be spearheading the Bilbao attack, especially now that the club has issued a hands off warning for his services (via Sky Sports).

    It's a worrying time for Bilbao. The club needs to seriously reconsider its efforts if the fans are to Basque in glory once more.

Madrid's Trip to Manchester City Is Set to Be a Classic

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    Madrid scored five against Bilbao. Manchester City scored five against Aston Villa.

    Both clubs are on decent stretches of form. Although neither have played consistently enthralling football this season, the victories are starting to tot up.

    Jose Mourinho's side fancy inflicting a rare home defeat on Roberto Mancini's men. The Etihad crowd isn't used to losing, nor are they used to facing opposition of Madrid's calibre.

    Will Ronaldo shine in his return to Manchester? Will City secure a vital three points on the quest to Champions League qualification? Will we be severely disappointed with a goalless draw?

    Anything could happen. All things considered, this should be a classic.

    Did Real Madrid produce their best performance of the season against Athletic Bilbao? Should Bielsa's team begin to worry? Let me know in the comments section below, and be sure to follow me on Twitter.

    All statistics in this article are courtesy of Whoscored.