A late goal from Álvaro Morata handed Real Madrid a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao on a rainy Sunday night at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid.
Karim Benzema opened the scoring early in the seventh minute, before Athletic equalised 20 minutes later through Sabin Merino. But Real’s late Bernabéu magic would appear seven minutes from time as Morata converted from close-range to give Los Blancos all three points and first place in the La Liga table. It was a tight, testy match between the two teams, but a strong final 20 minutes from Real, coupled with Athletic’s defensive lapses, proved to be the difference.
Manager Zinedine Zidane opted for the same starting XI that hung six goals in Seville last weekend against Betis, with Isco and Mateo Kovacic the notable names in midfield.
A comedy of defensive errors on Athletic’s part resulted in the game’s first goal for Real. Marcelo played a long cross-field pass for Isco which should have been cleared by Enric Saborit. But the defender slipped and Isco gladly took over and found an unmarked Benzema who swept in for the 1-0 lead.
Athletic hung tough and looked to work their way back on level terms. Sabin Merino was presented with a golden opportunity to do just that when left alone in the Real area on a cross, but he spoiled the chance by heading well over the crossbar. Merino would get his redemption though later in the half, and took advantage of some shambolic defending from Pepe and Dani Carvajal to fire home a shot past Keylor Navas to make it a 1-1 affair.
Real’s reaction was muted. Athletic remained the stronger side and were winning almost all of the 50-50 balls. Los Blancos were slow, disinterested and imprecise. Gareth Bale in particular endured a poor half down the wings, while frustration was written all over the face of Cristiano Ronaldo, culminating with a missed chance right before half-time when he shot right at Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz from just a few metres out.
Athletic’s momentum carried into the second half and Real were very fortunate to emerge unscathed in the early minutes of the half when Iñaki Williams rocketed a shot over the crossbar after more poor defending from Pepe.
Needing to change things up, Zidane went to his bench just after the hour mark and brought on Lucas Vázquez for Isco. It helped improve Real in attack and Ronaldo and Kovacic each came achingly close to regaining the lead for Real. Next on for the home side was super-sub Morata, who took over central striker duties from Benzema.
Exactly how Real did not score 10 minutes from time is anyone’s guess, Kovacic floated in a ball for Lucas Vázquez, who along with Morata, only had Iraizoz to beat. Lucas Vázquez played a touch pass for Morata, but the former Juventus man got off an awkward shot that deflected off an Athletic defender and out of play.
Morata would get a second chance though just minutes later and this time he converted to put Real back in the lead. Bale played a ball in from the left, which Morata met. Iraizoz initially made the save, but the ball squirted loss behind the Athletic No. 1 and Morata swooped in to score.
There was still work to do though, and moments after Morata’s go-ahead goal Athletic were on the verge of equalising again. Williams took advantage of abysmal back pass from Raphael Varane and was in on goal, but Navas was alert and deflected the shot enough for Real to eventually clear.
Ronaldo had a chance to ice the match in the dying second when he was in all alone on goal, but Iraizoz stood tall and denied the chagrined Portuguese superstar.
Real will kick off their 2016-17 Copa del Rey campaign on Wednesday with a Round of 32 first leg tie at Cultural Leonesa.