Real Madrid are going through a sticky patch and this is a big game for them
San Mames has long been one of the toughest grounds in Spain for away teams
Real Madrid will need to raise their game to win on Sunday - and they probably will
The odds for Athletic Bilbao vs Real Madrid are from the BetMGM sportsbook, where you can get a $1000 risk-free bet after signing up.
This will not be an easy game for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, but a victory at San Mames would be a real statement of intent.
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With Atletico Madrid enduring an up-and-down season under Diego Simeone, the stage is set for a two-horse La Liga title race. That is not exactly unexpected given the historic dominance of Spain’s big two, but it is actually an improvement on last year when Real Madrid won the league at a canter.
They are unlikely to triumph so easily this time around. Barcelona are top of the table heading into this weekend and the best online sportsbooks have them down as favorites. We are not even halfway through the campaign and their three-point lead is a slender one, but Xavi Hernandez’s team is certainly the one in the ascendancy right now.
In a two-way battle held across a 38-game season, it is only natural that the two contenders take it in turns to be the in-form side. More questions are being asked of Madrid at present, but that might not necessarily be the case in a month’s time.
It is clear, though, that the Blancos are not at the top of their game in early 2023. They were outplayed by Barcelona in the final of the Supercopa de Espana last weekend, going down 3-1 to their arch-rivals in Saudi Arabia. Before that they lost 2-1 to Villarreal in La Liga, allowing Barcelona to move to the summit of the standings.
A manager of Ancelotti’s vast experience will not be panicking - and nor should he. But the defensive errors his side made against Barcelona were not a one-off: Madrid have kept a clean sheet in only one of their last six outings in the league.
There were issues further forward too. Aurelien Tchouameni was sorely missed in midfield, and the Frenchman will play no part on Sunday either. Up front, Madrid did not create enough chances to truly challenge Barcelona. Ancelotti will want to see a vastly improved display here.
Like Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao also suffered a painful 3-1 defeat by their arch-rivals last weekend. In their case, Real Sociedad were the team that got the better of them in the Basque derby, denting Athletic’s chances of a top-four finish
In fairness to Ernesto Valverde’s side, qualifying for the Champions League was always going to be difficult this term, especially if Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid go on to take three of the four spots as expected. The Europa League was always the more realistic objective.
Athletic are definitely contenders for a top-six finish, but the defeat by Real Sociedad was a blow. Valverde’s men were outplayed at Anoeta, and although the red card shown to Yeray Alvarez on the hour mark made their task harder, la Real were worthy winners on the balance of play.
Athletic are arguably a little unfortunate to only be eighth in the standings. When teams in La Liga are ranked by expected goal difference - that is, the quality of the chances created minus the quality of the chances conceded - Athletic are third, behind only Barcelona and Real Madrid.
That is largely because of their defensive solidity: no team has given up fewer expected goals this term. Notwithstanding their loss last weekend, Athletic will be a tough nut for Madrid to crack.
Like all cliches, the one about San Mames being a tough place to go exists because it is true. That does not mean Athletic have never gone through sticky patches in front of their own fans, but an atmospheric stadium combined with the team’s traditionally physical approach means the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid never relish a trip to Bilbao.
Indeed, only Barcelona and Osasuna have collected more points at home this term. Two visiting teams – Espanyol and Atletico Madrid – have escaped with victories, but both had to dig deep and withstand heavy spells of pressure from the hosts. Madrid will have to do the same if they are to collect maximum points on Sunday.
In a strange way, though, this might actually be the ideal sort of game for Ancelotti’s side. Madrid have dropped points four times this season, including against Osasuna, Girona, and Rayo Vallecano. In other words, matches they were expected to win easily.
A tough test like this will focus minds and ensure Madrid are fully concentrated on the task at hand. And for all the question marks over this side, their resolve, grit, and spirit cannot be doubted.
It will not be easy and they will be pushed all the way by Valverde's charges, but we recommend backing Real Madrid to return to winning ways against Athletic Bilbao this weekend.
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Teams: Athletic Bilbao vs Real Madrid
Location: San Mames, Bilbao, Spain
Time: Sunday 22 January, 3:00 PM, EST
How to Watch: ESPN+
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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