Real Madrid’s stealthy pursuit of the Spanish title continues with ominous efficiency. A seventh successive win since La Liga resumed means they are guaranteed to go into the last week of the season at the top. The manner of the 1-0 victory at Athletic Bilbao will also weary Barcelona, in second place. This was another three points gained by Madrid via a penalty.
Just as against Getafe in midweek, an attacking full-back earned the spot-kick - Marcelo against Athletic, Dani Carvajal against Getafe - and just as now seems to happen every week, Sergio Ramos converted. The captain and central defender is on a remarkable scoring run, and his swaggering confidence will easily brush off any further complaints from Barcelona at the quantity of penalties awarded to Madrid in the run-in.
“We are not the top because of referees,” Ramos said, after what he called “a really important win.” And this latest penalty was absolutely clear, Dani Garcia planting his foot on Marcelo’s toe midway through the second half.
It had been a rugged game and Madrid can believe they have now passed through the most muscular phase of their title-chase. They won 1-0 at Espanyol, who are pugnaciously battling relegation, thanks to a goal from the combative Casemiro; they defeated a spiky Getafe, thanks to Sergio Ramos and now they have edged past an aggressive Athletic under a hot, early afternoon sun.
Madrid always expect to leave Bilbao bearing some scars. A surprise then, that it took fully 22 minutes before Raul Garcia, Athletic’s bruiser-in-chief, and Casemiro collided with their first hefty thump, and that it was nearly half time before Raul Garcia drew howls of indignation from Madrid players for dragging his studs across Marcelo’s knee.
An early foul, on Karim Benzema, offered the first clear chance of a taut first half, Marco Asensio testing Unai Simon, the home goalkeeper, with his dipping free-kick. Simon only parried and an alert Dani Carvajal would be first to the loose ball. Carvajal was livid with himself for overhitting his cross, aimed at Benzema.
Asensio, who had been all but ruled out for the entire season with a cruciate ligament injury last July, has been indirectly blessed by La Liga’s long pause. He was fit again come last month’s restart, and ready, in Bilbao, to make a first competitive start since last May. Assisted by the excellent Luka Modric, Asensio thrived at San Mames, with two superb crosses setting up the best opportunities of a goal before half-time, Rodrygo nodding the first wide and Benzema glancing the next just off target.
At the other end, Raul Garcia drew Thibaut Courtois into action with a header and, once or twice, Inaki Williams unnerved Madrid on the break. Eder Militao, deputising in the Madrid defence for the injured Rafa Varane, intercepted cooly to interrupt Williams’ most dangerous counter-attack.
Both sets of players went into half-time with symptoms of fatigue. The end-to-end pace of the contest had been more intense than either would have desired, given the beating sun and the non-stop demands of the emergency calendar.
Zinedine Zidane, Madrid’s head coach, had made five changes from the side who came through narrow winners against Getafe. He would end up very satisfied with Asensio and Militao’s displays, and thrilled with the decision to recall Marcelo.
The veteran full-back, with a sprint into the penalty box, won the decisive penalty, clearly tripped. Up stepped Ramos, to continue his remarkable season as a potent goalscorer. He struck the spot-kick low, into the corner of Simon’s goal, to bring his tally to 10 for the league season, and to five in the seven matches since the restart.
Four of those have come via dead balls - three penalties and a direct free-kick - and three of those Ramos goals have earned Madrid the full points in matches decided by a single-goal margin. The captain has won every major team prize in the sport, with Spain and with Madrid, but if he is to lift his fifth Spanish championship later this month, he will be entitled to regard it as his, as much as any of his teammates’.
Ramos survived a late penalty appeal against him, VAR making its judgement in his favour, but he picked up a yellow card during a heated melee in stoppage time. The skipper will now miss the meeting with Alaves suspended. But Madrid should have enough momentum now, even without their regular match-winner.