Real Madrid maintained their lead at the head of a tightening title race after Casemiro’s late winner helped them dispatch Bilbao at San Mames.
Real Madrid nabbed a crucial three points in the La Liga title race as they came away on top in a tough game at the San Mames. With Barcelona hosting Valencia later on Sunday, much hinged on a win to keep the Catalans at bay, even with a game in hand. Real now have only a two point lead after Luis Enrique’s men prevailed. With just ten games to go (eleven for Madrid) each point will become increasingly precious in this year’s race.
Athletic Club 1-2 Real Madrid FT:
Pass accuracy: 81%-79%
Chances created: 11-7
Casemiro with the winner. pic.twitter.com/kWYvRPP7wU
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 18, 2017
Athletic’s impressive home record makes the win especially sweet for Zidane. The side hasn’t lost a game since their defeat to Barcelona in August, which remains their only one all season. They were bright and direct at the start, causing some problems for the visitors. Raul Garcia drew a save from Navas early in the match and set-up a good chance for Alvarez in the box. But Madrid always looked lethal on the break. Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal at the end of one was disallowed in the 10th, and the Portuguese came close again minutes later, forcing Kepa into a low save.
Benzema vindicated his selection with a cool finish in the 25th to put the visitors ahead. Casemiro released Ronaldo up the left with a lovely ball, and he fed a well-placed low cross for Benzema to tap in. Athletic stepped things up in the second half with Inaki Williams proving a constant threat on the right wing. Aduriz finally found the equaliser for Bilbao in the 65th, placing his header beyond Navas.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 18, 2017
But Real responded three minutes later when Kroos’ corner found its way Casemiro, who struck from the far post. It eventually proved to be the winner as Real buckled down to see off the remainder without much incident.
Casemiro proves his worth yet again for Real
After Saturday win Marcelo declared Casemiro to be among the best central midfielders in the world. On the evidence of his recent performances for Madrid, that’s not far off. At the San Mames, too, the 25-year old was key for Real Madrid. With Athletic seeing plenty of the ball and not shying away from going for the visitors, his role in shielding Madrid’s back four kept them in the game.
Casemiro’s work in the centre often kept the likes of Garcia and Aduriz in control despite Athletic’s threatening movement. But apart from his defensive responsibilities, Casemiro turned out to be crucial up front as well. It was his initial ball to Ronaldo that led to Real’s first goal. And he, of course, got the winner right after Aduriz erased their lead. It was a composed finish, with the Brazilian mixing in a feint to fool Kepa before slotting in.
Marcelo: "Casemiro has improved amazingly. He's got to be one of the best central midfielders in the world." pic.twitter.com/HUAGGskQhJ
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) March 19, 2017
Real conceded thrice at Las Palmas earlier in the league in another tough game for the leaders. And at times it looked like Bilbao just might nick a point from Saturday’s fixture. But some diligent work at the back and compact play in the second half saw Real through. Now with games against opponents relatively lower down in the table in most of the upcoming fixtures, and with a game in hand, Zidane’s side has some breathing room at the top ahead of Barcelona.
Zidane’s post-match reaction
Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane was delighted with the result in a game he considered crucial in the title race:
“We won at a very difficult ground, we had to dig in but we played with real character. It was extremely important to win today and keep on track. There are 11 games left in the league and every single one will be crucial, against some very tough opposition.
“We’re top of the table but that doesn’t mean anything. We managed the game very well. Athletic are a side who fight until the end and they caused us problems. They’re very strong from set-pieces. Williams is a young player with real energy, he’s got quality and he can cause problems, but ultimately we managed to stop him.”
— SB (@Realmadridplace) March 18, 2017
On Benzema and Ronaldo’s substitution:
“Karim played a great game and Casemiro the same in the middle of the park. I was looking for a bit more balance with the changes. Cristiano Ronaldo can be taken off once in a while, it’s no problem. He was happy with the win. Bale kept helping the team right until the final ball.”
On the upcoming international break:
“Few players will get a rest. Some will even be playing significant games, but there’s nothing we can do about it. When they come back we’ve got nine games in 25 days and that’s when we’ll have it all to play for.
“I’m sure we’re going to need every player. I won’t be speaking to any national coaches telling them to leave players out.”