'BBC' should be back as Real Madrid navigate tricky trip to Bilbao
With no time to rue the challenging result of the Champions League draw against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid travel to Bilbao to meet Athletic on Saturday afternoon. Right before an international break, the match is key to maintain the lead of the La Liga standings and prepare for an extremely tough April. From the 8th to the 23rd of that month, Real Madrid will face Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich (twice) and Sporting Gijon, so it's imperative to do the homework and finish off March on the right foot.
Several Real Madrid players have highlighted the importance of this match, one of the toughest remaining trips for the club in La Liga. Despite their so far erratic season, shockingly eliminated of the Europa League by Apoel Nicosia and struggling to keep up with Villarreal and Real Sociedad in their fight to reach the top six, Athletic have improved their performances of late. Their win over Real Sociedad in the Basque derby last weekend will no doubt inject some energy in Ernesto Valverde's team, although the Bilbainos do not need any extra motivation when they face Real Madrid.
Zinedine Zidane is well aware of the difficulties that the San Mames stadium presents to visitors, as well as of the special reception that the locals always offer Real Madrid. So the French manager will start his preferred team. No rotations in Bilbao, which means that Gareth Bale, back after his two-match suspension, will feature next to Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, as the trio gets another chance to show its skill in a top-level match.
The Welsh forward has already missed 22 matches this season. If he starts on Saturday he'll reach exactly 22 games played, which means that he's taken part in only half of the matches his team has played. That figure reveals Bale's biggest drawback: even though his remarkable offensive potential is second to none in the squad, it's not advisable to count on him when you think of a starting lineup. Hopefully that percentage will improve significantly until the end of the season, as it would be great news for Real Madrid's attacking game.
Pepe is not fully recovered from a knock versus Napoli, while Raphael Varane and Fabio Coentrao did not train with the rest of the team; they are among the players who won't travel to Bilbao. Therefore, it's fair to predict that Zidane will start Keylor Navas, Daniel Carvajal, Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos, with the BBC up front.
On Athletic's side, the upbeat mood after defeating Real Sociedad at their own stadium is obvious. Valverde, one of the strongest candidates to succeed Luis Enrique as Barcelona's manager, knows that he's being closely scrutinised and would love that his team earned a famous (and timely) win against Real Madrid.
One of Athletic's defensive concerns is Sergio Ramos. The Madrid skipper, in the midst of an unparalleled scoring streak for a centre-back, has been the subject of intense analysis by Valverde's assistants, so that Athletic might succeed where so many others have failed this season.
"He's on a roll and we'll pay attention to him, but also to other Real Madrid players that could hurt us in set pieces," said midfielder Benat during Friday's news conference.
Valverde knows well that Athletic is a much better offensive than defensive team, especially in the aerial battle, so much of the week's work has been focused on how to stop Zidane's playbook on corners and free kicks.
Athletic's offensive weapons are well known. Aritz Aduritz, a rare example of a striker who has bloomed in his 30s, will come back after two weeks nursing a muscular injury and is a menace on both high crosses and counters, while Raul Garcia, reaching the box from midfield, can also score often. Garcia, one of the Bernabeu's most-hated foes since time immemorial, has seen 14 yellows and two reds when playing against Real Madrid, and should be responsible for marking Ramos in set pieces.
Sparks are guaranteed. However, Athletic's biggest offensive threat right now is Inaki Williams. The young forward, one of the fastest players in La Liga, has improved his accuracy when facing opposing goalkeepers, so he now needs to be seriously watched by any back four. Usually starting his plays on the flanks, the coordination between full-backs and centre-backs will be key to stopping Williams.
Some fans may look forward to April and its mouthwatering sequence of matches, but Real Madrid's visit to the beautiful new San Mames ranks up there in terms of exciting football. And, in this case, the outcome is crucial in the challenge of Zidane's team for the La Liga title, making it a must-watch game for Saturday afternoon.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.