Athletic Bilbao vs. Real Madrid: Complete La Liga Preview
In a week where the Champions League has dominated the headlines for mainly the right reasons, it has been easy to forget about domestic football.
But forget no more, La Liga action is back just in time for the weekend.
On Sunday night Real Madrid travel north to take on Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao in Basque Country.
Los Blancos will be buoyed by recent progression in Europe, as well as recapturing second place from Atletico Madrid in the table.
After the highs of last season, Athletic have endured a subpar year this time round, but the visit of Jose Mourinho's men offers the chance of at least some redemption.
A manic Monday night in Seville means that Bielsa will be without a number of his regular starters due to suspension this weekend.
Top scorer Aritz Aduriz, defender Carlos Gurpegi and midfielder Oscar De Marcos all picked up their 10th bookings of the season in the 2-1 defeat to Sevilla.
Additionally, young centre-back Aymeric Laporte was sent off—his second red card of the season—and will also miss the visit of Los Blancos.
Mourinho's squad looks set to be as close to full strength as it has been all season.
Recent fitness concerns over Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria appear a thing of the past, while defender Pepe has now completed six full club matches since his return from injury.
The goalkeeper debate will rumble on, though. Iker Casillas returned to the bench against Levante last weekend and will be desperate for a chance to dislodge Diego Lopez.
Three 1-0 wins in their last six matches have given Athletic the cushion they needed over the teams at the bottom of the table.
Despite a 2-1 defeat to Unai Emery's Sevilla on Monday night, they still have a nine-point cushion over Deportivo, who occupy the last relegation spot.
Real Madrid are unbeaten in La Liga since the beginning of February and, but for defeat in Turkey on Tuesday night, that would have been in all competitions.
However, the club from San Mames may seek encouragement in the fact that Los Blancos have lost a third of their 15 away matches in the league this season.
Men to Watch
Athletic Bilbao: Ander Herrera
With Javi Martinez already departed and Fernando Llorente off in the summer, thoughts turn to who the next player could be to leave Athletic in search of new horizons.
For a while Iker Muniain seemed the obvious choice, but the consistency of Herrera in central midfield has won him no shortage of admirers—Madrid's visit is another chance for him to impress.
Real Madrid: Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema
There are some matches of huge importance coming up for Real Madrid; the Copa del Rey final, the Champions League semifinal and then a potential final at Wembley.
In the meantime, Higuain and Benzema will continue to jostle for a starting place in those games. Sunday's match is another chance for one, or both, to prove a point.
The two sides met at the Bernabeu in November, and on that occasion Madrid handed out quite the hammering.
An own goal from Athletic's Jon Aurtenetxe opened the scoring before further efforts from Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira helped Real to five.
Somewhere in the middle of those goals, though, Ibai Gomez did register one for Athletic as the match finished 5-1.
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