Athletic Bilbao vs. Real Madrid: Winners and Losers from La Liga

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2015

Athletic Bilbao vs. Real Madrid: Winners and Losers from La Liga

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    Real Madrid continued their winning streak as they came up with a 2-1 win at San Mames against Athletic Bilbao.

    Karim Benzema scored either side of half time for Real, with his second coming just minutes after Sabin Merino had headed Athletic back on level terms. In so doing, the Basque player became the first to score past Keylor Navas this season.

    Here are all our winners and losers from the match in La Liga. 

Winner: Raphael Varane

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    In the absence of Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid needed someone dominant in defence against the aerial and physical threat of Athletic Bilbao's front line.

    That presence came from Raphael Varane, who was excellent in his defensive work and also used his great awareness to break forward and attack the midfield more than once too. His passing out of defence was impressive and one lightning break set Real onto the counter in a matter of seconds, but it was his work at the other end that mattered most.

    An early tackle set the tone for his game, and the Frenchman was excellent with his reading and interceptions throughout.

Loser: Miki San Jose

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    He has done an excellent holding job for Athletic Bilbao over the past 10 months or so, but Mikel San Jose made an awful error in the first half that put Real Madrid ahead.

    His poor pass back toward Gorka Iraizoz—who had admittedly passed the ball to the midfielder under pressure to begin with—never got close to its intended target, with Karim Benzema nipping in to strike home the opening goal.

    San Jose played well for the most part over the remainder of the game, but the mistake still proved costly. He was subbed in the second half as Athletic tried to get back on level terms.

Winner: Mateo Kovacic

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    Making his first start in La Liga, Mateo Kovacic put in a good all-round performance for Real Madrid.

    He was aggressive in the centre of the park with his challenges and willingness to close down Athletic's players when possible, but also used the ball well, dribbled into space at times and got forward to support the front three more frequently than Real's other two midfielders.

    Kovacic should have scored, no doubt, but it took a big save from Gorka Iraizoz to thwart him and if he continues to put himself into those areas inside the penalty box, the Croatian will certainly get a few this season.

Loser: Ernesto Valverde

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    In the context of this game alone, losing to Real Madrid by a single goal wouldn't normally be a big issue for managers—but Athletic boss Ernesto Valverde is looking at this as just the latest in a line of disappointing results.

    The first five games of the new Liga season have yielded just three points for Athletic: four defeats now, with one win coming against Getafe in the middle to keep the Basque team out of the bottom three for now.

    Valverde had a similarly tough start last season and he'll want to ensure Athletic start picking up points far earlier this season, rather than have to slug it out in the bottom half for the majority of the campaign.

Winner: Rafa Benitez

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    It's only September, but already Rafa Benitez has Real Madrid joint-top of La Liga—and Celta Vigo, not Barcelona or Atletico Madrid, are their rivals.

    The Spanish manager had critics from fans and media alike as soon as he was appointed but has organised his team to be strong defensively and goal-laden in attack so far, with the best defence and the joint-most prolific attack after five games. Crucially, Real can also say nobody has more points than Benitez.

    Benitez has altered his starting XI, his in-game formation and substitutions with frequency, but the end result continues to be a victory for Real. Combined with Barcelona losing 4-1 to Celta on Wednesday, the win at San Mames was a perfect outcome for Benitez.