Three things: Athletic Bilbao vs. Real Madrid

Posted by Dermot Corrigan

David Ramos/Getty ImagesCristiano Ronaldo was sent off with a straight red card for the first time since January 2010.

BILBAO, Spain -- Real Madrid were held by Athletic Bilbao to a 1-1 draw as superstar Cristiano Ronaldo saw red. Here are three thoughts from Sunday's draw in the Basque Country.

1. It's advantage Madrid (the city) in the title race

This weekend brought the end of Barcelona's record run of 59 consecutive game weeks on top of the Primera Division. Gerardo Martino's side have been on the slide for a while now: Barca have taken only five points from their past four league games, and were beaten at Athletic Bilbao in December, when after a tight-fought first half it was Athletic who went on and took the three points.

Madrid played much better on their first visit to the new San Mames -- and were the better team when things got really going after the break. Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti admitted that they had rode their luck a little bit in the first half ("It is difficult for everyone here") but came out impressively after halftime ("In the second half we were very good"). Modric tested Gorka Iraizoz from 20 yards, then Cristiano Ronaldo had the ball in the net only for the linesman's flag to go up -- and Karim Benzema then saw a fierce drive beaten away by the home keeper.

The direction of the game had changed and Madrid made it count. Angel di Maria nipped in to win the ball back in midfield, Benzema quick as a flash moved it forward to Ronaldo, who unselfishly squared across the face of goal for sharp-as-a-blade youngster Jese Rodriguez to poke home. It was a quality team goal. Even when Athletic equalised through a thunderbolt from sub Ibai Gomez, and the visitors went down to 10 men after Ronaldo was sent off, Los Blancos showed grit and determination to hang on for a point they deserved.

Atletico are now three points clear following their 4-0 win over Real Sociedad earlier in the evening at the Estadio Vicente Calderon, in an emotional game which doubled as a farewell for former Colchoneros and Spain coach Luis Aragones. While Madrid remain three points behind, they will see having caught up with Barcelona as more important. This was one point gained, not two points dropped at San Mames.

2. Without Ronaldo for how long?

The old San Mames was a pretty happy stomping ground for Ronaldo, who had scored on his past three visits as Madrid won each of those games 3-0. But he had a more frustrating time at Athletic's shiny new stadium Sunday night, struggling to make any impact on the first half and seeing a goal ruled out for offside. He managed to bounce back from that to set up Madrid's opener for Jese, but then saw red for raising a hand during a scuffle with both Ander Iturraspe and Carlos Gurpegi when claiming a penalty with the game at 1-1.

While the 39,000 full house cheered the decision by official Miguel Angel Ayza Gamez, Ronaldo could clearly not believe what had happened, and took his time to leave the pitch. Ancelotti said afterward that the decision "looked a bit exaggerated." Madrid left-back Marcelo opted for "unjust." Everyone at the Bernabeu now faces an anxious wait for the exact wording in the referee's report, with Madrid then having a chance to appeal to Spain's "competition committee."

As the sending off took place in a Liga game, Ronaldo should be free to play in the Copa semifinal first leg against Atletico on Wednesday at the Bernabeu, but looks likely to miss (at least) next Saturday's league clash at home to Villarreal. Should the ref or the committee take a dim view of his protests while leaving the pitch, or consider the offence to have been particularly violent, the ban could be stretched out further.

Ancelotti could really do with the ban being as low as possible -- especially with no end in sight for Gareth Bale's injury woes -- and Madrid might be best advised to just accept a one-match suspension if that happens. They could probably get by without their attacking talisman for the next league games away at Getafe and at home to Elche. But they will really need CR7 for the top-of-the-table trip to Atletico's Estadio Vicente Calderon on March 2.

3. Herrera and Valverde's Athletic are top-four material

The first half at the new San Mames was a tight tactical battle -- with the home side having the best of the few chances created. Both teams packed the midfield and looked to deny the other team any time or space on the ball, but Athletic were better at doing this. In possession, Valverde's side kept cleverly switching the ball from side to side, moving Di Maria and Luka Modric out to the wing to cover the full-backs. This seemed a deliberate idea to take advantage of Madrid's 4-3-3 where Ronaldo and Jese are not asked to really track back and left Ander Herrera, 24, alone against Xabi Alonso, 32.

Herrera got free of Alonso again and again, and created Athletic's best chance of the first half when he skipped away from the ex-Liverpool midfielder and slipped the ball behind defence for Aritz Aduriz, only for the burly centre-forward to shoot badly off target from 12 yards. The 45 minutes ended with Alonso booked (for catching Herrera with two feet from behind, after being caught wrong side again), but with the game still goal-less.

Athletic deserved to be ahead, but there was a feeling that they might have blown their chance of getting something from the game -- especially when Jese put the visitors in front. But Valverde had a trick up his sleeve -- and sent on sub Ibai, who scored with just his second touch, rifling a sweet volley to the net from 20 yards, as Madrid finally conceded a first goal of 2014. Athletic finished the game on the attack against the 10 men -- and Diego Lopez tipped over another cracking Ibai shot as his side held on.

In the end the draw was a fair result, and Athletic remain well set for fourth place in the table, now six points clear of Villarreal (with a game more played). With a clever coach, improving young creative players and that bit of extra spark that top teams have, the Basque club's excellent new ground could be hosting Champions League football next season.

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