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Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Real Madrid: VAR Hands La Liga Leaders Another Dubious Win

Athletic Bilbao welcomed Real Madrid to their stadium of San Mames on Sunday afternoon, in what was the 34th match of the 2019/20 La Liga season for both teams.

Bilbao entered the game from eight place with 48 points, with no real chance of reaching top four by the end but with a quite reasonable chance of securing one of the two Europa League spots. Meanwhile, Real Madrid were looking to extend their lead at the top to seven points, at least until Barcelona visited Villarreal that evening.

Team News

Bilbao head coach Gaizka Garitano couldn’t call upon midfielder Benat Etxebarria who was out with a hip problem.

Unai Simon was in goal. Inigo Martinez and Yeray Alvarez organized the back line, flanked by Yuri Berchiche on the left and Ander Capa on the right. Unai Lopez and Dani Garcia protected the back four by sitting deep in midfield. Iker Muniain and Inigo Cordoba were on the wings, while Raul Garcia played just behind striker Inaki Williams.

Having reportedly been rested in the previous match against Getafe, winger Eden Hazard was widely expected to start for Real, but in the end he wasn’t even on the bench. Defender Raphael Varane was taken off the pitch in that game with a suspected head injury and he was left out here as well. Nacho Fernarndez was out with a hamstring issue for a while.

Thibaut Courtois stood between the posts. Eder Militao this time joined captain Sergio Ramos in the heart of defence, with Marcelo on the left and Dani Carvajal on the right. Casemiro anchored the midfield, with Luka Modric and Fede Valverde in more advanced roles. Rodrygo Goes and Marco Asensio flanked Karim Benzema in attack.

The First Half

Real came close to taking an early lead in the fourth minute. They earned a free-kick some 30 yards out in a good position for a fine shooter, which they certainly have no lack of in their ranks. Asensio took it and hit the target, Simon parried shortly, Carvajal tried to pull it back for the unmarked Benzema at six yards, but it was a poor ball and Benzema couldn’t control his header.

It took only two minutes for the hosts to respond as Ramos failed to intercept a diagonal pass into the box towards Williams, who took a low shot under pressure from Marcelo and saw it saved well by Courtois.

It was a lively contest from the start, with Real expectedly seeing more of the ball and spending more time in the opposition half, and Bilbao defending well and looking to hit back through the pace of Williams.

And another such moment occurred in the 16th minute. Williams took the ball forward, and involved Muniain on the right. A good cross followed and Raul hit a fine header, prompting an equally good save from Courtois. Three minutes later, Williams latched onto a good pass down the right flank and charged at Militao, but with the help from Ramos, Militao reacted well and dispossessed him cleanly.

In the 21st minute, Garitano had to replace Yeray through injury, and Unai Nunez took his place.

Real threatened seriously in their very next move, and it was the first time Bilbao’s defence wasn’t up to the task. Both centre-backs were watching Benzema in the middle of the box as Asensio swung in a cross from the left, and as the ball passed through, Rodrygo was completely alone at the far post and sent his header over the bar. Williams sent his powerful shot over the other bar less than 60 seconds later as he charged into the box from the right. Chances came, but the nets stood still.

After around half an hour had gone, both teams appeared to have grown slightly frustrated with inability to take the lead despite the chances, and the battle became tougher with a number of reckless fouls in the middle of the park. Referee Jose Luis Gonzalez exercised extreme patience not to book anyone from either team.

In the 36th minute, Bilbao attacked again down the right and caused Real serious trouble. Capa broke down the flank and went for a one-two with Raul on the edge of the box. Williams, however, got involved and took the ball for himself, and not only missed the target when one-on-one with Courtois, but he was also rightly flagged offside. Then Inigo almost gave Real a great chance the other end as he allowed Rodrygo to intercept his pass, but Benzema switched on from an offside position and saved the Bilbao defender’s skin. Then it was Williams again at the other end; he suddenly broke towards Militao and tried to go around, but the Real centre-back was immaculate again and with the help of Courtois this time, dealt with the situation expertly. At the stroke of 45 minutes, Real almost punished the hosts for it all when Asensio’s finely measured cross found Benzema high in the air, but the Frenchman missed the far post by a few inches.

It was a highly exciting first half, with both sides unlucky not to have scored before the break.

The Second Half

Luka Modric quickly announced that the second period would be just as lively as the first with a powerful shot after cutting inside from the left which Simon had no problems saving. Real attacked quickly again through Valverde whose fine pass into the box found Benzema at some 10 yards from the goal, but the striker was tightly marked and couldn’t turn to face Simon before being dispossessed.

But the visitors now pushed forward with a bit more determination and they took control of the game. They were gradually moving the line of  battle towards Simon’s goal, constantly looking for an opening in a very organized Bilbao defence to exploit. The offensive lasted for about 10 minutes, and then the home side managed to string a few passes together and move forward themselves.

From that point on, the flow of the game returned to the ways of the first half. Real still had more of the ball, but Bilbao’s quick attacks through Williams and Raul were by no means to be taken lightly. Militao excelled in dealing with the Bilbao striker, but it was hard work all the time for the Portuguese defender.

In the 62nd minute, Garitano withdrew Cordoba and Lopez and introduced Oscar de Marcos and Mikel Vesga.

Real now tightened the noose around the Bilbao box again. They played quickly and intricately, with right-back Carvajal sometimes ending up as a centre-forward, sometimes as a left winger. But Bilbao weren’t just sitting back either; they still looked for any opportunity to hit back at the table toppers. Raul and Muniain were now looking more active in support of Williams.

In the 70th minute, the referee stopped the game to use the VAR monitor and check the contact between Marcelo and Dani Garcia inside Bilbao’s box, and then he pointed to the spot as the footage showed the Bilbao midfielder stepping on the foot of the Real fullback.

Sergio Ramos stepped up, but there was still a conflict between Valverde and Yuri for the referee to sort out. Nonetheless, the Real captain was ruthless from the spot.


Zidane had already prepared to change his wingers, and now Rodrygo and Asensio made way for Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior.

And less than a minute later, the officials showed an extreme lack of consistency when Sergio Ramos clearly stepped on the foot of Raul Garcia inside Real’s box, but the referee wouldn’t even look at VAR.

The sense of injustice seemed to have given the Bilbao players some added energy, and they wrested the control of the proceedings from the visitors. They were now spending a lot of time in possession in Real’s half. In the 84th minute, De Marcos had a go from the edge of the box but failed to hit the target.

Zidane obviously felt a fresh pair of legs was needed in the middle of the park at that point, and Toni Kroos came on for Valverde and almost scored within a minute, only just failing to latch onto a great pass from Modric into the box.

Nonetheless, Kroos quickly helped his team regain composure and control and in the very next attack he created a great chance for Benzema, but Simon made a great save. Then Vinicius burst into the box from the left, but he was eventually stopped by Capa.

The home team gathered their last strength for a final charge as the four official announced a five-minute stoppage time. With one of the five gone, Villalibre beat Militao in Real’s half and whipped in a dangerous cross, forcing Ramos to hit it out for a corner. Another minute later, Casemiro was lucky to get away with only a yellow card as he recklessly mowed De Marcos down, raising his studs as he slid in.

Tempers ran high towards the end as Bilbao players grew frustrated. Several names from both teams were added to the referee’s book but it all only went further in Real’s favour. The scuffles lasted even after the final whistle.

The Afterthought

Referees and VAR have lately often been accused of helping Real Madrid win their games as they seek to overthrow arch-rivals Barcelona from the La Liga throne, and this game is very likely to add fuel to the fire. The rules clearly weren’t the same for the two teams, and Bilbao will feel extremely hard done by; they did not deserve to lose this game. But this is Real Madrid, and just like Barcelona, they’re certainly no strangers to winning in this manner.

Be that as it may, the dubious penalty calls at either end now take Real to a seven-point advantage over Barcelona, at least until the Catalans’ game away at Villarreal in the evening. As for Bilbao, they will have to try and forget about the injustice and rack up some points elsewhere to book a place in next season’s Europa League.

Match Report

ATHLETIC BILBAO: Simon 7.5, Inigo 7.5, Yeray N/A (21′ Nunez 6.5), Yuri 7.5, Capa 7.5, Lopez 6 (63′ Vesga 6.5), D. Garcia 6.5 (78′ Sancet N/A), Muniain 6.5, Cordoba 6 (63′ De Marcos 6.5), R. Garcia 7.5, Williams 7.5 (78′ Villalibre N/A).

REAL MADRID: Courtois 7, Ramos 7, Militao 8, Carvajal 7, Marcelo 7, Casemiro 7, Modric 7, Valverde 6 (85′ Kroos 7.5), Asensio 7.5 (74′ Vinicius 6), Rodrygo 6.5 (74′ Vazquez N/A), Benzema 7 (90′ Jovic N/A).

YELLOW CARDS: Raul 39′, Dani Garcia 72′, Muniain 90′, Ramos 90′, Yuri 90′, Casemiro 90′, Carvajal 90′.

GOAL: Ramos (P) 73′.

REFEREE: Jose Luis Gonzalez.

DATE & VENUE: July 5, 2020, San Mames, Bilbao.

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