Athletic faced a major test on Sunday as the Lions looked to close out 2019 with a positive result against Real Madrid. It had been nearly 15 years since the last time the Basques was at the Santiago Bernabéu and putting an end to that streak would be far from easy. However, Gaizka Garitano’s side were confident in the buildup and the manager even threw a tactical wrinkle at Madrid with an interesting lineup.
Unai Núñez was brought into the team as Garitano field three center-backs with Iñigo Lekue and Yuri Berchiche operating as wingbacks. Dani García and Mikel Vesga partnered in the midfield while Raúl García, Iñaki Williams, and Kenan Kodro formed the attacking trio. The change certainly made things more difficult for Real Madrid but it wouldn’t take long for the hosts to get into the game.
Just 11 minutes into the match Unai Simón would be called into action. Rodrygo’s turn in the box left him with only the goalkeeper to beat but Simón stood his ground and made a spectacular save. Real Madrid continued attacking down the left wing and Simón would make yet another save, this time sending the ball off the crossbar.
Athletic were content to hit on the counter and nearly opened up the scoring in the 20th minute when Iñaki Williams was sent in and goal. The forward tried to pick out the near corner but saw his shot saved. Iñigo Martinez, Mikel Vesga, and Dani García did well to win tackles and possession, though Madrid’s attacking onslaught pressed on.
Simón broke hearts again in the 32nd minute with a fine save followed by a clearance off the line by Unai Núñez. Minutes later Simón would save a strong header from Karim Benzema as Real Madrid were left stunned. Athletic appeared to take the lead moments before the break when Kenan Kodro found the back of the net with a beautiful finish, however the flag had come up.
Real Madrid enjoyed even more possession in the second and regularly switched fields looking for space. Athletic defended well and had options on every counter attack while Simón made two more saves to deny the hosts. At the hour mark, Nacho would put a header off the crossbar from a corner kick followed by yet another save from Simón in the 64th minute.
As Real Madrid continued trying to wear down Athletic the Lions were offered more space when going forward. Iñigo Lekue played a beautiful ball across the face of the goal which would have been easily finished off by Williams at the back post, but a defender managed to cleared the pass at the last second.
The final 10 minus consisted of Real Madrid putting crosses into the box while Athletic did well to clear them. Six minutes were added for stoppage time and the Basques continued to weather the storm and nearly silenced the Santiago Bernabéu in the final seconds when Asier Villalibre had a free header saved in the box. The flag had come up, but replay showed that the goal might have been overturned had it been scored and sent to VAR for review.
Athletic certainly had chances to score and win the game, but a draw at the Santiago Bernabéu is always a positive result. Unai Simón’s big saves stole a point for the Zurigorri who return to Bilbao for Christmas break with 28 points and sitting 7th in the La Liga table. After the time off, Athletic will be back in action on 3 January when the Basques travel to take on Sevilla in one of the most highly anticipated games of the season.