Madrid secure slender win

Real Madrid provisionally opened a five-point lead atop La Liga with a narrow 2-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.

Raphael Varane aside, Madrid were at full-strength against Athletic, who without defensive midfielder Mikel San Jose due to suspension but stuck with Yeray Alvarez, the centre-back having gone from strength to strength after treatment for testicular cancer at the end of last year.

Los Leones had lost just once at home in 2016-17, that coming against Barcelona on the opening day, but had won only two of their La Liga meetings with Madrid since September 2005.

A chance fell to Athletic in the first couple of minutes as Inaki Williams was teed up by Inigo Lekue in the Madrid box but couldn’t find the right finish.

Raul Garcia then unleashed an acrobatic effort in the penalty area from a cross, but it was just about pushed away by Navas, although he may been better off passing the ball up for an unmarked Lekue.

Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, was clearly offside when he tapped home Dani Carvajal’s cutback at the far post. The Portuguese was too eager and really ought to have held his run better.

Ronaldo proceeded to angle a shot on target from Karim Benzema’s through ball, but it was parried by Kepa Arrizabalaga, before Yeray Alvarez came a whisker away from sliding home Garcia’s cushioned header.

Sergio Ramos threatened to pop up with a goal from a set-piece much earlier than usual, but he sent his diving header wide after he was found unmarked by Toni Kroos.

Nonetheless, Madrid broke the deadlock when Ronaldo escaped down the left and put the ball on a plate for Karim Benzema, who flicked a finish home.

Casemiro and Aritz Aduriz were lucky to stay on the pitch for the second half. The Brazilian avoided a booking for chopping down Williams and dissenting, while the striker was spared for leaving his studs on the former’s standing foot.

Like at the start of the match, Athletic nearly scored in the opening stages of the second half. Aduriz's header from a set-piece was just about put behind Navas’ goal by Ramos after a moment of confusion between goalkeeper and defender.

Bar that, Madrid appeared to have been in control, yet Zinedine Zidane opted to switch to a 4-4-2 formation and bring off Luka Modric.

The tides suddenly turned, with Athletic starting to overrun Los Blancos’ two in the middle. From that, Williams’ deep cross was knocked back by for Aduriz to nod past Navas.

However, just three minutes later, Madrid regained their lead through a set-piece as Ronaldo’s flick-on was tucked away by Casemiro. The midfielder showed great composure to take the ball down and side-foot past Kepa.

Another peculiar change by Zidane saw the No 7 make way for Isco, but it may have allowed Navas to emerge as man of the match.

The Costa Rican had been heavily criticised for recent performances, but he made two stops to deny as many Williams shots from the right-hand side.

Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Real Madrid

Aduriz 65 (AB) Benzema 25, Casemiro 68 (RM)

Athletic Bilbao: Kepa; Lekue (Muniain 59), Yeray, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe, Benat (Mikel Rico 79); De Marcos, Raul Garcia (Susaeta 86), Williams; Aduriz

Real Madrid: Keylor; Carvajal, Nacho, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric (Lucas 62), Casemiro, Kroos; Bale, Benzema (Morata 85), Ronaldo (Isco 79)

Referee: Jaime Latre