Opportunity knocks for Real Madrid in Bilbao

Posted by Rob Train

Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty ImagesCarlo Ancelotti has struck upon a balanced side at Real Madrid.

Real Madrid enjoyed their best January in history in terms of results and on Saturday were handed an unexpected bonus by Valencia, who pocketed a deserved three points in Camp Nou under new coach and former Barcelona forward Juan Antonio Pizzi.

Ernesto Valverde is another former Barca forward who left his post as coach of Valencia last season to take the reins at Athletic Bilbao, who endured a miserable 2012-13 as Marcelo Bielsa unravelled quite spectacularly. And it will be up to Valverde to try and do his old club a reverse favour.

Valverde picked up the pieces left by Bielsa and moulded Athletic into an expansive and flexible side that have yet to be beaten at the new San Mames in the league. Atletico will go down in the history books as the first team to outdo Athletic at the freshly consecrated cathedral and Ancelotti is under no illusions that Real will need to be in a state of grace to follow suit on Sunday.

Pride in the shirt has never been an issue at a club with such a singular identity, but Valverde has restored its bite. The Lions are sitting comfortably in fourth place with a decent cushion over regional rivals and nearest challengers Real Sociedad.

"Athletic is a great side, very dangerous, who play dynamic football," the Italian said in his pre-match press conference. "Valverde is doing a fantastic job. We will have to be at our best. To win in San Mames you have to give more than 100 percent."

A 20-game unbeaten streak stretching back to Oct. 26, including 17 wins, and a perfect record so far in 2014 with no goals conceded suggests that Real Madrid are doing precisely that. Ancelotti's switch to a 4-3-3 system has brought the best out of his favoured 11 and the results have been contagious, with the likes of Jese and Asier Illaremendi hitting the heights of their more experienced teammates when called upon. Gareth Bale has been ruled out for the trip to Bilbao and the Real coach refused to show his hand as to the Welshman's replacement, saying either Jese or Angel di Maria could fill in on the right.

If the cantera product does so, Di Maria will slot into the left midfield position he has occupied to good effect in recent games. But taking Athletic's scoring prowess -- Almeria, Valladolid and Osasuna have been seen off 6-1, 4-2 and 5-1 in recent weeks -- and ability to flood forward in numbers through Valverde's 4-3-2-1 and 4-1-4-1 formations, Illarramendi may well be drafted in to shore up the defensive half.

Valverde made an astute decision in promoting youngster Aymeric Laporte to a starting role and has wrung the best out of Ander Iturraspe and Ibai Gomez, all of which has consigned summer signing and the flavour of a couple of seasons ago -- to the extent he got a nod for Spain --Benat to a secondary role. According to reports in Spain, Laporte has been drawing a few admiring glances from the gran quesos at Camp Nou.

Despite the chance to nose ahead of Barcelona, Ancelotti will be keen to keep his squad fresh ahead of the upcoming Copa double-header against Atletico, with Villarreal in the league sandwiched in between. More good news in that respect for Real is the return of Raphael Varane to fitness. The France international has barely featured so far this season and will need to be eased back in -- "he's not ready for three games a week," Ancelotti warned -- meaning the bench in Bilbao, but a reinforcement of calibre to take up some of the slack as the fixtures start to pile up.

But the same is true of Diego Simeone, who has orchestrated back-to-back wins against Real after 14 years of Atletico misery. The cup might be a third priority for both Madrid sides but the combative Argentinean will not lightly relinquish his grip on it -- and certainly not against public enemy number one; rotation is a necessary spanner in the works of clubs competing on more than one front. In-form Real Sociedad have the ability to cap a perfect weekend for Ancelotti, but they too will have one eye on a midweek cup semifinal against Barcelona when they line up at the Calderon immediately ahead of the San Mames clash.

One player guaranteed a start whatever the opposition or occasion is Cristiano Ronaldo, who enjoys playing Athletic; the Portuguese has bagged 11 goals against The Lions, one short of the club record held by Raul.

Few would bet against Ronaldo at least equalling that on Sunday. And history does not bode well for the home side. Athletic have not beaten Real since a single Fernando Llorente strike undid Manuel Pellegrini's side in January 2010. Since then Real have won each of the eight games between the two sides, scoring at least three on every occasion.

But there is current running through Athletic at the moment that will take more than a disgruntled fan or a betting syndicate to extinguish. "Madrid are going to have to play very well to beat us," said midfielder Andoni Iraola.

How the league table will look on Monday is anyone's guess, but the fixture list has thrown up a golden chance for Real to stamp their authority on the title race in Bilbao.

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