Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric guide Real Madrid to 4-2 win vs. Athletic Club
Real Madrid kept their perfect home record under coach Zinedine Zidane with a 4-2 win against Athletic Club Bilbao. It's their fourth win in four matches at the Santiago Bernabeu since the new manager took over, a spell in which the hosts have scored 20 times and have conceded three goals. There were plenty of chances for both teams but the hosts' win helps them keep pace with leaders Barcelona.
Zidane made two changes from last weekend's starting XI in Granada as Danilo came in at right-back and Mateo Kovacic replaced Isco Alarcon in midfield. Real quickly broke the deadlock after only two minutes as Cristiano Ronaldo scored with some fantastic individual play. However, for most of the first half the hosts struggled to deal with Athletic's high press and the visitors drew level after a misunderstanding between Raphael Varane and Keylor Navas.
Athletic kept pressing and enjoyed several chances to take the lead, but a brutal strike by James Rodriguez and a rare forward move by Toni Kroos gave Real a 3-1 lead at halftime. The hosts took control in the second half, Ronaldo eventually scored his second, and not even the late sending-off of Raphael Varane or a late goal by Elustondo could spoil the day.
In order to mount a decent title challenge, Real Madrid need to win their next six matches. The next step at Malaga awaits but before that, they'll have to play the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Wednesday in Rome.
Player Ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Keylor Navas, 8 -- Wrong-footed by Varane in the run-up to Athletic's first goal, Navas kept the hosts alive with a couple of great saves during twenty tough minutes of the first half, during which the visitors dominated. He showed his amazing reflexes to keep out Aritz Aduriz's powerful header. Then in the second half, he bailed out Kroos by racing off his line to deny Aduriz's shot. Couldn't do much about Gorka Elustondo's phenomenal header for Athletic's late second.
DF Danilo Silva, 5 -- Still low on confidence, the Brazilian does move forward with intent. He had one scoring chance and did link well with James Rodriguez, but the visitors attacked steadily down his flank. On current form, he's a defensive liability.
DF Raphael Varane, 4 -- His error got Athletic back into the match. Not for the first time this season, his decision-making on the ball was far from sound in the first half, though he did improve in the second. Was sent off for two very similar bookings, penalised for jumping next to Aduriz with his elbows open. An uninspired performance.
DF Sergio Ramos, 5 -- Slowly picking up form, he gained confidence as the match went along. Neither him nor Varane could deal with the crosses towards Aduriz. He needs to recover his fitness fully if he's to become the Sergio Ramos of previous seasons.
DF Dani Carvajal, 6 -- Zidane chose him to start on the left flank as cover for Marcelo. Moved forward well and kept his side tidy, but it's obvious he does not feel at home in that position. Went back to the right when Nacho came on, then back to the left after Varane was sent off. A very eventful match for the Madrileno.
MF James Rodriguez, 6 -- A deja vu performance as James hid his below-average match fitness behind a handful of fantastic plays, including a cracking shot from outside Athletic's box that gave Real Madrid the lead just as the visitors will have felt the match was ripe for the taking. He shows glimpses of the great player he is, but he needs more time.
MF Luka Modric, 8 -- Less involved than usual during the first half, he soon masterminded the attack once he got up to speed. Modric took advantage of Athletic's obvious fatigue after the break to keep possession and enjoy exchanging passes with Kroos and Kovacic.
MF Toni Kroos, 7 -- The midfield keeps growing in stature and Kroos is one of the reasons. Although he almost gave away a goal with a terrible first touch in the second half, the German obviously had fun with plenty of passing and movement along with a goal. This match should reinforce his motivation.
MF Mateo Kovacic, 8 -- Probably the biggest surprise of the match, together with Athletic's courageous approach. The Croatian moved around non-stop, provided his midfield teammates with plenty of passing options and surprised the visitors' defence with several appearances in their box, as admitted by coach Ernesto Valverde. He deserves more playing time, especially with Kroos and Modric surrounding him.
FW Karim Benzema, 6 -- The Frenchman left his killer instinct at home this time around. Participated well as part of the offensive flow but lacked the intent to score at least two clear chances in which he decided to pass the ball rather than take a shot himself. We thought those times were over, Karim!
FW Cristiano Ronaldo, 8 -- Started off impressively with a great goal and a few dribbles that took us back to previous seasons in which Ronaldo owned the left side. Assisted Kroos for the third but then took half an hour off only to reappear in the final 20 minutes with a shot that hit the post and, eventually, his second goal. If he can replicate this form away from the Bernabeu, Real Madrid can mount a challenge for the title.
DF Nacho Fernandez, 6 -- Replaced Danilo in the 67th minute. Occupied the left-back position at first and then moved to centre-back when Varane was sent off. Solid and unspectacular as usual.
MF Isco Alarcon, NR -- Replaced Kovacic in the 71st minute. Did a few of his trademark tricks in Real Madrid's own half, most of them of questionable success, although they earned him the Bernabeu's applause.
FW Lucas Vazquez, NR -- Replaced James in the 78th minute. Slotted in at right-back and ventured forward a few times in his short time on the pitch, finding Ronaldo at the end of his cross for the Portuguese's second goal of the afternoon. Showed he's eager to play.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.