Real Madrid travel to the San Mames for what will be a tricky fixture with Athletic Bilbao. It's a great matchup, featuring the third- and fourth-placed teams in La Liga.
When these two met earlier in the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid walked away with a 3-1 win. Isco had a brace with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a goal in between. Ibai Gomez scored late, but it was to no avail.
The fact that these two clubs are third and fourth is a bit deceiving. Every year, it's Real Madrid, Barcelona and then everyone else. The gap those two clubs and the rest of the league is almost always astronomical—except this season, Atletico Madrid are mounting a legitimate title challenge and have jumped ahead of their inner-city rivals.
Still, this will be a very tricky match for Madrid.
The San Mames is one of the few real cauldrons left in Europe. Moving out of the "old" San Mames has done nothing to dull the stadium atmosphere in Bilbao.
Not to mention that Athletic have won four of their past five league matches and are playing with a beautiful free-flowing style of football. Many neutral supporters fell in love with this club when it was making a run through the Europa League under Marcelo Bielsa.
While the tactics aren't exactly the same, the level of excitement is.
There's also an interesting dichotomy at play, as Bleacher Report's Ryan Bailey highlighted the difference between the way Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid approach the transfer market and build their clubs:
Bilbao's attitudes toward recruitment couldn't be any more different than that of their anxious visitors on Sunday.
Real Madrid are renowned for their incredible youth setup, but relatively few of their homegrown stars get to shine at the Bernabeu due to a policy of importing megastars that began in the 1990s. In 2013, for example, Transfermarkt shows us that Madrid spent nearly £144 million on players. Athletic Club had a particularly extravagant year, splashing £13.4 million on players of Basque origin.
It's just one of the many storylines surrounding one of the best matches on tap in Europe this weekend.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 3 p.m. ET; 8 p.m. GMT
Where: San Mames, Bilbao, Spain
TV Info: beIN Sports (US); Sky Sports 2 (UK)
Odds (via Bloomberg Sports)
Athletic Bilbao win: 26.9 percent
Real Madrid win: 52.3 percent
Draw: 20.9 percent
Key Storyline: Can Athletic Take Any Points off Madrid?
The stats are against Athletic in this match. They have lost to Madrid in each of their past eight matchups.
In addition, Los Blancos are unbeaten in their past 20 matches across all competitions and set a club record for most consecutive clean sheets when they blanked Espanyol in the Copa del Rey. The record has since increased to eight matches.
Despite the numbers advantage, Carlo Ancelotti knows how difficult this match will be for his team.
"It's a tricky match because Athletic are playing very well at the moment and everyone knows playing at the San Mames is not easy," he said, per Eurosport's Pitchside Europe. "But it's a good time for us to be playing there. We have confidence and desire and we are excited about giving everything to win."
When the league winner has totaled 100 points at the end of the season, any time Barca or Madrid fail to win, it's a big deal.
Barcelona drawing with Atletico and Levante in consecutive weeks helped to close the gap between them and Real Madrid, so Ancelotti will be keen to ensure that his side don't let their good luck go to waste.
As great as it would be to see Athletic Bilbao snatch a draw or even pick up a shock victory, Real Madrid are playing too well at the moment to see them get anything less than three points.
Athletic's possession-based attack may be their undoing. Madrid are great on the counter, and despite Bilbao's strength in defense, they will get torn apart if the likes of Gareth Bale, Marcelo, Cristiano Ronaldo or Angel Di Maria get any space down the flanks.
Real Madrid will face a tough resistance in the first half and early into the second half. But Karim Benzema will score the first, which will force Athletic Bilbao to open up. Ronaldo will take advantage and get Madrid's second goal to lock up the result.
Prediction: Real Madrid 2, Athletic Bilbao 0
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