Real Madrid battle hard in Bilbao to move five points clear
Karim Benzema and Casemiro were on the scoresheet at San Mames for Zidane’s side
Real Madrid’s Casemiro scores the winner against Athletic de Bilbao at San Mames in Bilbao, Basque Country, northern Spain. Photo: Luis Tejedo/EPA
Real Madrid moved five points clear of Barcelona at the top of LaLiga with a hard-fought 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao.
Karim Benzema put the visitors in front after being set up by Cristiano Ronaldo on 24 minutes, but Athletic, who had previously lost only once at home all season, equalised through Aritz Aduriz just after the hour.
Real, though, were soon back in the lead when Casemiro tapped in following a corner in the 68th minute as Zinedine Zidane’s men kept the pressure up on rivals Barca, who host Valencia on Sunday.
Wales forward Gareth Bale returned from his two-match suspension to join Benzema and Ronaldo in the Real frontline.
Athletic were defending a formidable home record, having not lost at San Mames since a 1-0 defeat to Barcelona back in August.
It was a positive start from Los Leones, who tested Madrid keeper Keylor Navas with some high balls into the penalty area.
Real thought they had taken an early lead through Ronaldo on nine minutes.
The Portugal forward, however, was flagged offside after tapping in a scuffed cross from defender Dani Carvajal.
The home side then went close when defender Yeray, who recovered from being diagnosed with testicular cancer before Christmas, stabbed the ball wide from close range after Raul Garcia’s knockdown following a deep free-kick.
At the other end, Real captain Sergio Ramos sent a diving header off target at the far post following a free-kick whipped through the Bilbao box from the right by Toni Kroos.
Real swept into the lead on 24 minutes.
Ronaldo beat the offside trap to latch onto a chipped pass down the left by Kroos, before clipping the ball back across the penalty area, where Benzema arrived to dispatch a first-time shot low into the bottom right corner.
It was almost quickly 2-0 as Bale stung the palms of Bilbao keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.
The referee then had to deal with a flashpoint as Garcia and Ramos squared up, with Athletic forward Aduriz and Carvajal also getting involved before calm was restored and a couple of cautions handed out.
Benzema failed to convert Marcelo’s cross as Real finished the first half on top.
After the end-to-end action of the opening 45 minutes, the tempo dropped at the start of the second half.
Real keeper Navas was eventually called into action just after the hour when got down to smartly palm away Inaki Williams’ low shot from close range.
The equaliser came on 65 minutes.
Williams was this time the creator, as he stood up a deep cross from the right through the Real penalty area to the back post where Garcia nodded it into the six-yard box and Aduriz headed in.
Real, however, were back in front within three minutes.
A corner from the right was flicked on at the near post by Ronaldo and Casemiro was left unmarked to pass the ball into the net from a yard out.
Marcelo hacked over from close range and Navas blocked Williams’ angled effort as Real closed out victory to remain in control at the top of LaLiga.