Match Preview: Athletic Club vs Real Madrid – 2021/22

By: Mohammed Sahel

For old times’ sake, it just had to be Bilbao. Real Madrid face Marcelino’s team at an extremely delicate stage of the season. The make or break part if you will. Tonight, Los Blancos compete for a place in the Copa del Rey semifinals. Plus this fixture always makes for some captivating football.

The King’s cup is a competition Madrid haven’t historically been the most convincing in (past 10 seasons or so that is) but one that can possibly give the Merengues another trophy to show for come the end of the season. Beating Bilbao is essential in terms of continuity. It is evident that Carlo Ancelotti does not have his best eleven at offer for tonight’s game, but he will still try and field his best team.

What to Expect:
Athletic Club are masters of the knockout game as far as Cup football is concerned. Like they did on several occasions last season, beating the ‘big three’ is something they enjoy doing. Before playing a big knockout match a Zinédine Zidane or a Carlo Ancelotti may tell you that “we’re playing the game, not the occasion”. Well Bilbao most certainly play the occasion, it is in Basque tradition to show up in top gear for big games.

Which is why, Marcelino’s team shouldn’t be underestimated. This is the fourth time Real Madrid play them this season so neither will take the other by surprise in terms of how they approach the game. Madrid will still dominate through the midfield, play with their wingers in transition and remain aggressive at the back, with a high defensive line.

Bilbao like they always do, will be on their toes. Set pieces and turnovers from midfield are the two biggest hurdles any rival faces when playing the Basques. They tend to remain a lot tighter in their own third while their best play flourishes in the opposition third, both in terms of pressing without the ball and countering with it.

It is crucial that Ancelotti’s men stay wary of teams like Bilbao because they never wear out. In essence, they’ve got all of the quality in the world on their bench despite only deploying players of Basque origin through their ranks. With the depth of passionate players, plus the quality on the first team, it comprises for quite the unique team sheet. If anything, Athletic Club will not be phased by the pressure.

Team News:
Ferland Mendy was the latest player to pick up a knock in training. Karim Benzema is also ruled out. Vinicius, Rodrygo and Valverde are available after flying in from South America on Wednesday morning. Éder Militão is already in Madrid given he was suspended for Wednesday’s international game. With Gareth Bale back in training he’s a strong contender for the right wing spot.

Seeing as how this is a cup game, the coach might want to make one or two necessary rotations like Camavinga or Lunin. Luka Jovic, Eden Hazard and Toni Kroos are pretty much guaranteed to start. Marcelo picked up a red card at Alcoyano and will hence be suspended. As a result, Modrić is expected to take the armband. Carvajal should be able to start given he’s now recovered.

Unai Vencedor is Bilbao’s singular injury issue tonight. At home, they’re seeking revenge for last month’s Supercopa defeat.

Expected Line-ups:
Real Madrid:
Carvajal — Militão — Alaba — Nacho
Modrić — Camavinga — Kroos
Bale — Jovic — Hazard

Athletic Club:
Lekue — Yeray — Martinez — Balenziaga
Berenguer — Zarraga — Garcia — Serrano
Raul García — Iñaki Williams

Player to Watch:
Athletic Club: Raul García. Marcelino’s quickest, most agile centre forward is undoubtedly Iñaki. But García is just the type of player Real Madrid have struggled to defend against lately. He’s tall, can head the ball and finds space between central defenders pretty well. Bilbao may hold play off him, then distribute out wide and cross it into him. Watch out.

Real Madrid: Luka Jovic. The Serbian did not score in Real Madrid’s previous Copa del Rey fixture and scoring tonight will by no means be a total redemption arc for him. It will however, certainly boost his confidence ahead of what is another game Karim Benzema might miss (Granada).

Athletic Club 1-2 Real Madrid.

As has always been the case, Marcelino’s side will work hard even in defeat. They are a different monster in cup competitions and will not be easy to overcome. I’d go as far as to say that if the game goes beyond 90 minutes they are likely to win it, given their depth and recent high following the win versus Barcelona.

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