Real Madrid’s prolific start to life under Zinedine Zidane continued on Saturday as they defeated Athletic Bilbao 4-2, despite Raphael Varane’s red card.
Zinedine Zidane revealed at his pre-match Press conference that Isco would be rested for Mateo Kovacic in Madrid’s midfield, and he kept to his word, while Marcelo’s shoulder injury meant Danilo was drafted in at left-back.
Athletic, on the other hand, were without suspended duo Mikel San Jose and Inaki Williams, so Ander Iturraspe came into central midfielder and Oscar De Marcos filled in for the latter on the right wing. Elsewhere, a late injury to Markel Susaeta merited Sabin Merino’s inclusion on the left flank, while Xabier Etxeita was preferred to Eneko Boveda.
Los Leones looked to end a miserable run of 11 straight defeats at the Santiago Bernabeu and limit Cristiano Ronaldo’s involvement in the game, the Portuguese having scored 14 goals in 13 previous meetings with Saturday’s opponents, but their plans were quickly thrown out of the window as he bent an unstoppable drive past Gorka Iraizoz less than three minutes in.
However, their bright start was soon marred by awful defending from Varane, who gifted Athletic the equaliser just seven minutes later, Keylor Navas only able to parry the centre-back’s backpass off the line, allowing Javi Eraso to tap home his first goal at the Bernabeu.
Athletic then began to take the game to Madrid, but their finishing badly let them down. Aduriz, usually so clinical in the penalty area, could only send a free header wide, before forcing an acrobatic save from Navas to keep out a second headed attempt.
There was still hope for Athletic and their 35-year-old marksman, with his feet possibly coming to the rescue, but his flicked effort from Sabin Merino’s low cross crashed against the crossbar, while Oscar de Marcos was left to rue a scuffed finish on the end of a left-wing cross, when it was easier to hit the target.
That was enough, as far as Madrid were concerned, and after a treble of blocked shots in the box, James Rodriguez emerged from the abyss to light up the Bernabeu with a curling drive from around 20 yards out.
Athletic’s punishment was then compounded by Toni Kroos, who collected Ronaldo’s through ball in the 12-yard area and slid a low shot into the bottom-left corner of Iraizoz’s net, which beat the goalkeeper and may have taken a slight deflection en route to its destination.
The second half proved a slow burner, although Aduriz wasted another glorious opportunity, having been denied by Navas’ light speed to spring off his line and smother their one-on-one.
Madrid, meanwhile, appeared to be cruising to all three points, but Raphael Varane was dismissed for a second bookable offence with less than 10 minutes remaining, although his arm on Aduriz to win an air ball was harshly considered foul play.
Nonetheless, Ronaldo wrapped up the victory soon after, the No 7 continuing his savage form against Athletic as he picked his spot past Iraizoz, yet there was still time for Gorka Elustondo to score arguably the best headed goal of the season, somehow glancing a low cross past Navas from a tight angle.
Real Madrid 4-2 Athletic Bilbao
Ronaldo 3, 87, James 37, Kroos 45 (RM) Eraso 10, Elustondo 90 (AB)
Varane sent off 83 (RM)
Real Madrid: Navas; Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, Danilo (Nacho 68); Kroos, Modric, Kovacic (Isco 72); James (Vazquez 80), Benzema, Ronaldo
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; Lekue (Muniain 69), Etxeita, Laporte, Balenziaga; Benat, Iturraspe (Elustondo 62); De Marcos, Eraso, Sabin (Viguera 80); Aduriz
Referee: Alvarez Izquierdo