Zinedine Zidane cruise control at Real Madrid to be tested against Bilbao
A match against Athletic Bilbao is never an easy one. Barcelona can attest to that after finding themselves on the wrong end of a 4-0 Aritz Aduriz-inspired hiding in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup last August. In the return leg, Barca were again unable to beat the Lions, who lifted their first trophy in 31 years at the expense of the treble winners. Not a bad start to the season.
But Athletic's early commitments in 2015-16 were considerable. Bilbao had played eight games already by the end of August and lost their first two Liga matches, 1-0 at Camp Nou and 2-0 at Ipurua. That both were away fixtures is no surprise: Athletic are a different beast at San Mames than on the road. Real Madrid required three attempts to secure a victory in Bilbao's new stadium, a 2-1 win last September, despite a perfect recent record of three consecutive away triumphs at the old San Mames, in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The last time Athletic took three points from the Bernabeu, Zinedine Zidane was still playing for Madrid. Goals from Asier del Horno and Andoni Iraola gave the visitors a 2-0 win. It's a record that Athletic boss Ernesto Valverde believes is an inspiration for his side.
"Breaking a statistic like that is always a motivation. Our objective is to turn it around. The statistic is a historical point; it doesn't have anything to do with what will happen," he said.
For Zidane, the match presents the first of a series of tests of his managerial mettle. So far under the Frenchman's tenure, Real have played Depor, Sporting, Betis, Espanyol and Granada. The side's next four fixtures are against Athletic, Roma, Malaga and Atletico.
Zidane has not yet had to manage more than a single game in a week. The Athletic match is a hurdle but one that the Real boss must take as the first of a steeplechase. Rafa Benitez's reign was conditioned by injuries to key players and Zidane now faces the same balancing act. Pepe remains sidelined, Gareth Bale has suffered another setback and may not even make the derby, and Marcelo has joined them in the treatment room.
That the Brazilian is apparently willing to risk further damage to his shoulder to play against Roma with pain-killing injections is admirable, but also indicative of a lack of other options. Ramos did the same in key matches earlier in the season and has barely been fully fit since.
After the second leg against Roma at the Bernabeu on March 8, Sevilla and Barcelona come in swift succession. Zidane has proven reluctant to rotate so far, leaning on his senior players as much as possible.
The prospect of losing Luka Modric to injury will be foremost in the Frenchman's mind on Saturday after the Croatian left Los Carmenes last weekend with a few knocks. Modric is fit to face Athletic but he should be withdrawn at the earliest available opportunity with the Olympic Stadium and a rejuvenated Roma on the horizon.
Fortunately for Zidane, Athletic also have significant absences. Chief among these is Raul Garcia, who has a particular fondness for winding up Ramos and was in splendid form until injuring his knee against Sevilla last month. Inaki Williams will be ruing his sending off against Villarreal last weekend as much as Valverde, given Real's shortages on the left. Ibai Gomez is another long-term absentee and Mikel San Jose is serving a one-match ban.
Still, Athletic are quite capable of bringing their run at the Bernabeu to an end, especially if the visitors can control the midfield. The performances of Isco and James Rodriguez in Granada suggest a midfield shake up may be in order to lend Real a more combative edge.
Mateo Kovacic impressed during his brief cameo in Los Carmenes and could get the nod to add a bit of physicality and some extra cover on the left would be useful, with Zidane facing a choice of fielding an ailing and out-of-form Danilo; Nacho, who has barely featured all season; or Alvaro Arbeloa, whose emergency appearance in the side to replace the injured Dani Carvajal during October's Madrid derby will live long in the memory of Real fans for all the wrong reasons. Arbeloa has played 20 minutes in the league since then.
Cristiano Ronaldo is not noted for his defensive enthusiasm but showed signs of a willingness to put in a shift in the win against Espanyol.
Zidane said from day one that the entire team has to defend when not in possession. That will key against a Bilbao side that will run Real ragged for 90 minutes and have, in Aduriz, a striker with 25 goals in all competitions this season.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.