Bale, Benzema misfire and other talking points from Real Madrid's draw at Athletic Bilbao

Andy West 09:01 16/09/2018
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Real Madrid were forced to settle for a point as Athletic Bilbao claimed a 1-1 draw in an exciting Saturday night showdown at San Mames.

Both teams will feel frustrated to be denied victory, with the hosts leading for much of the game while Madrid created the majority of the best chances.

Here are three talking points to arise from the game – starting with the emergence of a new star.

Simon the new star

Athletic Bilbao suffered a big blow on the eve of the new campaign when highly regarded goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga was sold in a big money move to Chelsea, leaving the Basque club seriously under-resourced between the posts. That, at least, was the theory. But it turns out that Athletic had sneakily been hiding a replacement who, on the evidence of this game, could prove to be even better.

Unai Simon was incredibly impressive against the reigning European champions, belying his lack of experience with a performance full of confidence and composure – and even when he made a bad mistake, fumbling Gareth Bale’s free-kick when it should have been comfortably gathered, he immediately made amends by leaping to save Sergio Ramos’s effort from the rebound. Simon also showed great confidence with his distribution and, on the evidence of this game, appears to be the real deal.

At the start of the season the 21 year-old was not even supposed to be the first choice to replace Kepa, but he quickly leapt above Alex Remiro and Iago Herrerin to earn an unexpected chance which, with a combination of his shot-stopping skills and ability on the ball, he looks capable of grabbing with both hands…and feet.

Coincidences, coincidences

This was a day of strange parallels in La Liga, starting with the fact that three Basque clubs – Eibar, Real Sociedad and Athletic – all came close to claiming famous victories against big-name opposition before being forced to settle for less as respective opponents Atletico, Barcelona and Real Madrid battled back to rescue seemingly lost causes.

There was an even more notable similarity in the games for the top two, with Barcelona falling behind to a goal from La Real in the first half before equalising in the 66th minute through Luis Suarez – exactly the same time that Isco’s equalising goal came for Real Madrid, and from pretty much the same position on the edge of the six-yard box.

Also notable was that Barcelona’s revival in San Sebastian only came after coach Ernesto Valverde was forced to introduce rested stars Sergio Busquets and Philippe Coutinho (a holding midfielder and an attacking midfielder) from the bench, in the same way that Madrid boss Julen Lopetegui felt obliged to bring on (holding midfielder) Casemiro and (attacking midfielder) Isco for his team

The big difference, of course, was that Barca went on to claim a rather undeserved winner whereas Madrid could only claim a solitary point – and that is the difference at the top of the table as the reigning champions move clear for the first time this season.

Bale and Benzema misfire

The big question mark against Madrid at the start of the season was how they would find the goals to replace departing superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. In the opening weeks of the campaign the answer appeared to be that remaining ‘BBC’ forwards Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema would step up to the mark, with the duo combining for seven goals in the first three games.

But not this time. In the bear-pit atmosphere on the magnificent San Mames stadium, neither Bale nor Benzema could maintain their early-season form as their team was forced to rely upon a most unexpected source of scoring – a close-range header from Isco – to avoid their first defeat of the season.

Bale tried, firing in four attempts on goal. But they were mostly wayward, and the relatively subdued Wales international’s only real contribution before being substituted – and it was a very significant one – was an excellent right-footed cross onto Isco’s head for the leveller.

Benzema was even quieter, failing to find even one shot on target as he reverted to the man we saw last season: some nice approach play, but not much penalty box penetration. If that continues, Ronaldo will be dearly missed indeed.

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