League leaders Real Madrid head to San Mames Saturday to face an Athletic Bilbao team currently sitting in 10th. Over the years, the Basque side has become something of a favorite target for Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s scored 14 goals in 11 matches against Athletic.
Of course the embattled Portuguese forward, who’s lately suffered abuse from his own fans, has often been an object of ire and derision from Bilbao’s fans. His contentious relationship with the San Mames faithful has boiled over on more than one occasion. It will be a measure of the man to see how Ronaldo responds to the pressure this weekend.
The firestorm surrounding his ill-timed birthday celebration has largely blown over. But his performances are still being criticized by the Spanish press and the latest rumors have it that the club has decided he’s past his prime and plans to sell him. The Bilbao clash would be an opportune time for the Ballon d’Or holder to get his mojo working again.
Whatever pressure has let up on Ronaldo seems to have now transferred to Carlo Ancelotti. Last weekend home fans jeered the Italian manager during Real’s 1-1 draw with Villarreal. He’s being criticized for his substitutions and his team selection. Admittedly, the manager has opted to stick with his front three of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, despite a notable dip in goal production from all three since the turn of the year. Earlier this week, stories circulated that Ancelotti had been given a “second warning” by the club board. Keep in mind that Ancelotti is the man who delivered the long awaited La Decima, or 10th European title to Madrid last May. And that the team currently sits in first place and is well placed to progress in the Champions League.
Real Madrid is a club with impossibly high standards and demanding fans. Despite maintaining top spot, Real’s slight drop in form has allowed Barcelona to close the gap to just two points. Even the slightest slip up could have consequences. That makes Saturday’s trip to Basque country all the more challenging: Real will face a Bilbao side that in spite of having its ups and downs this year is through to the Copa del Rey final and is always a tough nut to crack on its own patch.
But despite a homefield advantage, Bilbao is likely to be impacted by their midweek exertions in the Spanish Cup. Ancelotti’s side, on the other hand, should be well rested for the trip. Madrid also has several first-team players coming back from injury: Sami Khedira, Benzema, Sergio Ramos and James Rodrigues have all returned to fitness and should be available for selection.