Given the way the champions performed at home against 18th-placed Malaga last week, Bilbao’s low place on the league table is no guarantee of a Madrid success, although they will still be strong favourites for the clash.
Here are three talking points ahead of the game.
ZIDANE UNDER PRESSURE?
Winning back to back Champions League titles and last season’s La Liga crown has earned highly respected and well-liked Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane more credit in the bank than would usually be afforded to occupants of the hottest of hotseats at the Bernabeu.
But even Zidane is now starting to be questioned after a highly unconvincing start to the season for Los Blancos, whose poor form continued in the past few days with a fortunate 3-2 home win over relegation-threatened Malaga and a scrappy 2-2 home draw against lower league Fuenlabrada in the Copa del Rey.
There’s certainly no suggestion that Zidane is currently close to being fired by trigger-happy president Florentino Perez, but a few more weeks of the current form could change. With his team looking poor all over the park, the French coach desperately needs to oversee a vast improvement between now and the New Year to avoid coming under the microscope – especially with runaway leaders Barcelona due to visit the Bernabeu in three weeks’ time.
ZIGANDA’S DAYS NUMBERED?
Zidane won’t be the only manager under pressure at San Mames on Saturday, with Athletic’s boss Cuco Ziganda rumoured to be nearing the sack following his team’s humiliating midweek cup exit against lower league Fortmentera.
The Basque club have desperately struggled to maintain their recent high standards following the departure of coach Ernesto Valverde to Barcelona in the summer, and they are heading into this weekend’s encounter stuck down in 16th position after gaining just three league wins so far this season.
A long-term injury to the team’s chief creative force Iker Muniain hasn’t helped matters, but Ziganda – who was previously the club’s B team boss before being selected to succeed Valverde – is expected to extract a lot more out of a talented squad containing highly rated players such as young goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga (reportedly a firm target for Real Madrid), French defender Aymeric Laporte, gifted but erratic forward Inaki Williams and evergreen frontman Aritz Aduriz.
After a run of five league games without a win – and just one win in ten – victory against Madrid would be a perfect way for the Basque outfit to start turning their season around.
WHAT NOW FOR GARETH BALE?
After two months sidelined by his latest in a long line of injuries, Gareth Bale made a long-awaited return to action by coming off the bench in the midweek cup clash with Fuenlabrada. And the Welshman made an immediate impression with practically his first touch by delivering a gorgeous assist for Borja Mayoral to equalise, rescuing a potentially embarrassing exit against the minnows.
However, Bale’s impressive and encouraging half-hour cameo display was quickly followed by reports that he had suffered yet another injury setback, and much to the frustration of Madrid fans the Welshman will miss Saturday’s game with a calf strain.
Bale remains a key player when he is fit, but his long-term future at the Bernabeu was already being questioned before this latest setback, with president Perez – who has always been one of the winger’s strongest advocates – reportedly deciding the Welshman’s persistent physical problems have made his continuity at the club untenable. If he now has another extended spell on the sidelines, it could signal the imminent end to his stay in Spain.
Gareth Bale made his latest return from injury on Tuesday night, coming on for Real Madrid in their 2-2 draw against Fuenlabrada in the Copa del Rey. It’s been a long, well-documented struggle for the 28-year-old, whose injury troubles have now put him at risk of being the name at the top of the list whenever player sales are discussed at the club.
By all accounts, however, Bale has no intention of leaving Madrid without a fight, and still believes that he can make it at one of the biggest clubs in the world. There’s no denying his talent, and he’s shown it on occasion for Madrid in between all the injuries.
Here are three ways Real Madrid could line up with Bale in their side.
Madrid’s formation in recent weeks has loosely been a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid, largely because of Isco‘s freedom to roam in attack. What is constant is the three-man midfield of Casemiro, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos, and the two-pronged attack of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
In this formation, Bale could either take Isco’s role, or partner Ronaldo – the assumption being that while Benzema might be considered untouchable, Ronaldo is definitely that. Plus, the Bale-Ronaldo relationship remains the most important dynamic when it comes to the Welshman’s role at the club.
There’s previously been speculation regarding a rift between the two, and Ronaldo seems to have benefitted from the players who have stepped up in Bale’s absence. Playing alongside the Portuguese could be the best way to salvage Bale’s Madrid career.
Zinedine Zidane has a tendency to switch to three at the back to make the most of the many attacking players at his disposal. It’s a tactic he often adopts when Madrid are chasing a game, and usually, it’s one of the moves that draws criticism from the media – the complaint being that there is no method involved other than having as many attacking players on the pitch as possible.
But Pep Guardiola has occasionally played Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane as wingbacks at Manchester City, with much the same purpose. If it can work there, why not at Madrid? And Bale actually has experience of playing both as a winger and as a full-back so a wing-back role might suit him. He could play as an inverted wing-back, drift towards the centre when necessary, and offer pace on either side for the midfield to exploit.
The other option for Zidane is to go back to the basics. Madrid played a 4-3-3 for so long, and even now, although Ronaldo and Benzema is clearly pushed furthest forward in a formation that has two up top, with Isco’s floating role and Ronaldo’s license to come deep it is at times a 4-3-3 anyway.
Of course, using this formation would again mean dropping either Isco or Benzema – which, at the moment, is Bale’s problem, no matter what formation Madrid adopt. His injuries have allowed Isco to jump above him in the pecking order, and Benzema is considered undroppable for the way in which he sacrifices himself in order to maximise Ronaldo’s output.
The truth is, while Zidane and Madrid have plenty of options as they go about reintegrating Bale into their squad, right now, when it comes to the starting XI, Welshman is always going to be on the outside looking in barring an excellent run of form.
Prosecutors believe the Croatian, whose wife Vadja is also cited in the accusation, evaded €870,728 in 2013 and 2014 via a shell company set up in Luxembourg.
However, that figure could rise once details of financial holdings belonging to the player in the Isle of Man are revealed to Spanish authorities.
Modric, 32, joined Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur for a reported fee of £30 million in 2012. He is just the latest in a series of star players based in Spain to be accused of tax fraud on income related to image rights in the past few years.
On Tuesday, Madrid left-back Marcelo admitted to a €490,917 tax fraud via his image rights in 2013.
As part of Marcelo’s agreement with the authorities, the Brazilian is expected to be handed a four-month suspended sentence and a fine worth 40 per cent of the defrauded amount.
Real Madrid’s all-time leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo appeared in court in July over accusations he evaded €14.7 million worth of tax between 2011 and 2014.
Barcelona duo Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano received 21-month and one-year suspended sentences respectively after being found guilty of tax fraud over their image rights in 2016.
However, five-time World Player of the Year Messi’s sentence was later replaced by a €252,000 fine.