Point in Bilbao not to be sniffed at by 10-man Madrid

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Great goals, a red card, conflict, passion and an all-around entertaining contest. Games between Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid are always ones to look forward to, and Sunday's first meeting between the sides at the new San Mames, a 1-1 final, didn't disappoint.

The thrills spread across 90 minutes, but the main talking points came in a 10-minute spell just after the hour mark. Jese Rodriguez fired Los Blancos ahead by finishing off a fine move involving Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. But an inspired substitution by Ernesto Valverde saw the hosts on level terms soon after, when Ibai Gomez came off the bench and struck a superb shot that flew by Diego Lopez and into the back of the net via the inside of the post. It was the first goal Madrid had conceded in 2014, and then things got worse for the visitors when Ronaldo was sent off for an altercation with Carlos Gurpegi and Ander Iturraspe with 15 minutes left.

- Corrigan: Three things: Athletic Bilbao vs. Real Madrid
- Report: Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Real Madrid

The ending didn't go to plan for Carlo Ancelotti's men, not after Jese's opener looked set to inflict a second defeat on Athletic at their new home in the space of four days after previously enjoying an unbeaten start. It looked set to leapfrog Madrid above Barcelona in the table after the Catalans suffered a shock home defeat against Valencia on Saturday, and it looked set to continue Los Blancos' perfect start to 2014. It didn't happen, with the unblemished defensive record going and the chance to move above Barca gone for now -- but Madridistas shouldn't be too disheartened.

The trip to the Basque country was always going to be Madrid's toughest of 2014 so far. It's usually one of the toughest matches of any season, despite comfortable wins on paper in their past two visits. Bilbao aren't overly fond of Madrid, and the fact that it was their first time welcoming Los Blancos to their shiny new stadium only added to the hosts' desire to open with a win. Athletic are in good form, too, with their only competitive defeat at their new home coming in midweek, when Atleti left with victory and Copa del Rey progression. A walk in the park for Madrid it would not be.

The cheers in the capital started on Saturday, however, from both sides of town. Barca were not expected to slip up against Valencia, not on home soil, but they did, giving both Madrid clubs the chance to move up the table. To do that both Atleti and Real would have to see of tricky Basque opponents in Real Sociedad and Athletic, respectively. Unlike last time (when Atleti missed the chance to go top when they drew at home against Sevilla last month), Atleti make their chance count. A 4-0 thrashing of La Real at a packed Vicente Calderon. More than 50,000 paid their respects to former player and manager Luis Aragones, who died last week, and it seemed fitting that Los Rojiblancos moved top of the table for the first time since 1996.

Madrid wanted to make it a capital double at the top and keep their part of the deal, too. Few would bet against Ancelotti's in-form side, but Athletic fancied their chances. Here was a side looking good for a Champions League spot come the end of the season and a side that had already seen off champions Barca on home turf this season.

Gareth Bale was absent, but in Jese, Madrid need not worry too much about replacing the Welshman. The Castilla product has been one of Madrid's form players in recent months, arguably in better form that the former Tottenham Hotspur man, and he didn't disappoint in Bilbao. The youngster showed great anticipation in getting on the end of a Ronaldo assist to fire Madrid ahead with a deft touch past Gorka Iraizoz. Madrid's "BBC" of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano may not have been together, but Jese slotted into the visitors' front three seamlessly. Politics suggest Bale will regain his starting role when fit, but on form, few would argue against Jese continuing there.

Bilbao had the best of the first half, but Jese's goal came after Madrid had upped their game on the restart. The hosts carved out some great chances, but Aritz Aduriz and Iker Muniain wasted them as the first half finished goalless. The game swung Los Blancos' way after the break with Benzema forcing Iraizoz into a fine save at his near post before Jese struck the opener with 25 minutes left.

It was going to take something special to break a stubborn Madrid defence and that something special came from Ibai. The attacker had only been on the field for a matter of minutes but his impact was instant. Sergio Ramos headed a Bilbao free kick away, but Ibai beat Luka Modric to the loose ball and blasted an unstoppable effort into the back of the net to raise the temperature among the home supporters. There was little Lopez could do to stop the first goal of 2014 flying past him.

Bilbao had the momentum, and that momentum grew when Ronaldo saw red. His appeals for a penalty fell on deaf ears, but an altercation with Gurpegi ensued and resulted in players from both sides charging in to get involved. The Portuguese raised his hand to the Bilbao man, but when he went head-to-head with Iturraspe, it was enough for the referee to show red to Madrid's talisman. A deserved one, perhaps, given that Ronaldo raised his hand and then clashed heads, but the same punishment should probably have been dished out to Iturraspe, too, rather than a yellow.

Ronaldo's absence will be a blow for Madrid, but Ancelotti will have the novelty of playing both Jese and Bale together in attack if he wishes when the Portuguese misses out -- Los Blancos will just be hoping that rest for their star man isn't too long. Ronaldo was going for Raul's record of 12 goals for Madrid against the Basques but instead got the unwanted story of being the first Ballon d'Or "holder" to be shown a red card since ... Ronaldo against Almeria in 2009.

Madrid held out for a point with 10 men for the final 15 minutes, and although Madridistas had high hopes of overtaking Barcelona in the table with victory at San Mames, a point is not a bad one. February was always going to be a tougher month than January for Ancelotti and his troops, and that's been showcased in the first game. A cup derby doubleheader against the new league leaders and a home clash against Villarreal will throw more testing times to Madrid, and they'll need to show they're up for the challenge. Sunday's point in Bilbao should not be sniffed on another thrilling weekend at the top of La Liga.


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