Real Madrid’s perfect start to the season faces a serious challenge tonight with a trip to face dangerous Athletic Bilbao.
The Basque hosts will be fresh and ready to fire after nearly three weeks without a game, with their trip to Rayo Vallecano before the international break being postponed due to safety problems with the opposition’s stadium.
Real, contrastingly, saw most of their players in international action just a few days ago, giving manager Julen Lopetegui some interesting selection decisions – and that dilemma kicks off our pre-game talking points.
CAN LOPETEGUI LEAVE OUT RED-HOT ASENSIO AND ISCO?
Spain’s magnificent 6-0 demolition of Croatia on Tuesday was notable for a superb individual performance from young winger Marco Asensio, who scored one brilliant goal and created three more, while club teammate Isco also capped an outstanding display with a superbly-taken goal.
Now, then, Lopetegui has to consider how on earth he can possibly leave one of those two red-hot players on the bench. The coach’s 4-3-3 formation – with equally in-form Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale surely set to retain their places – leaves space for only one of them, giving Lopetegui a serious headache.
Perhaps the answer lies deeper on the pitch, where defensive midfielder Casemiro could well be suffering from fatigue after playing twice for Brazil in the United States, most recently on Tuesday night in a 5-0 demolition of El Salvador in Maryland.
The after-effects of transatlantic travel could compel Lopetegui to keep Casemiro in reserve, slotting Toni Kroos into a deeper position in front of the back four and thereby creating space for Isco in midfield, allowing Asensio to take the spot on the wing. The best solution for everyone?
WILL BALE CONTINUE TO SHINE AFTER FIVE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY?
Friday was the fifth anniversary of Gareth Bale’s debut with Real, and the Welsh winger has arguably never been better placed to make himself an indispensable player at the Bernabeu than right now.
Bale – along with Benzema – has responded to the summer departure of Cristiano Ronaldo by making a blistering start to the season, scoring in every league game to add sparkle to a series of exhilarating personal performances, converting the speculation over his future that dominated the summer into a distant memory.
However, there is always a caveat: fitness. Spanish newspaper AS devoted Friday’s front page to Bale by noting that he has won four Champions League titles during his time with the club, but also spent 393 days on the sidelines with a series of injuries.
There is a strong suspicion that many of his physical problems have resulted from unnecessary over-exertions on the international stage with Wales, and after seeing him play 165 minutes in last week’s meetings with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark, the pressure is on Bale not only to keep scoring, but just to stay fit.
DOUBLE I SPELLS DANGER FOR REAL?
After an extremely disappointing season last time around, traditional heavyweight Athletic Bilbao are showing early signs of a resurgence under new coach Eduardo Berizzo, and the Basque hosts will be determined to return to action with a statement of intent tonight.
Two players, in particular, will be dangerous opponents for Real, starting with diminutive but crafty playmaker Iker Muniain, who is already looking back to his creative best after missing nearly the whole of last season through injury.
Muniain will be the main source of ammunition for frontman Inaki Williams, a player always regarded as rich with potential but now – at the age of 24 – facing more expectation to deliver the goods on a consistent basis.
Mainly operating from the wing, Williams has never scored more than eight league goals in a season. But with veteran striker Aritz Aduriz a declining force he is now becoming – both literally and figuratively – a more central part of the team’s plans. This weekend is the ideal opportunity for Inaki, aided by Iker, to prove he’s up to the task.
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