x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Bilbao stomach Real backlash

Following midweek humiliation by Liverpool, Real Madrid could have hoped for an easier encounter than a trip to Athletic Bilbao but they triumphed in the Basque country.

Following midweek humiliation by Liverpool, Real Madrid could have hoped for an easier encounter than a trip to Athletic Bilbao. The Basque fans of Athletic loath what the standard bearers of Spanish football stand for and dismiss Madrid's glamour as greed, their assurance as arrogance. On Saturday, as is always the case when the Primera Liga's first and third historically most successful teams meet, invective poured down from the stands in a gloriously cacophonous San Mames.

The Basque players battled and bruised and picked up seven yellow cards to Madrid's four, but the Spanish champions weathered the storm in a manner they have perfected. Unbeaten in Bilbao since 2004, Madrid triumphed 5-2 over a strong Athletic with two goals from Klaas Jan Huntelaar and further efforts by Gabriel Heinze, Arjen Robben and Gonzalo Higuain. The victory cut Barcelona's lead at the top of the Primera Liga to three points ahead of the Catalans visit to Almeria late last night.

Dreadful in Europe, Madrid can't be accused of the same incompetence domestically. Cup finalists Athletic have exceeded expectations this season. Fifteen-goal striker Fernando Llorente can join club legend José Etxeberria in never needing to buy another drink in Bilbao's old town, which is buzzing with anticipation about May's cup final against Barca. Cup success, though, has intoxicated Athletic and masked a recent slip in the league which has seen them winless in six.

Against Madrid, the Basques were two behind after 34 minutes and down to 10 men after Fran Yeste was shown red for shoving Iker Casillas to the ground following the visitor's second. Having made life difficult for themselves, Athletic then surprisingly drew level after a Heinze own goal and a Llorente header before half time. The second half, like much of the first, was Madrid's. A Huntelaar strike on 47 minutes and a second 14 minutes later from the Dutchman gave the Spanish champions a margin for error before Higuain converted an 85th-minute penalty after Andoni Iraola fouled Marcelo.

"The score reflects what took place on the pitch," said Madrid coach Juande Ramos. "There's always friction and intensity in Athletic v Real Madrid matches, but we were the superior team. It was especially important for us to respond after the Liverpool defeat but if we had to choose I would have preferred victory in the Champions League." Ramos can see one advantage from the European elimination, however.

"We now have seven days to prepare for each match and Barcelona do not," he stated. "Fatigue though isn't always a factor. It doesn't mean we will narrow the gap sooner." In Saturday's other game, a late equaliser saw a desperate Valencia, who have not won since the beginning of February, salvage a 1-1 draw at home to Recreativo Huelva. amitten@thenational.ae