Nacho keeps Real Madrid’s La Liga title hopes alive

Leagues

Nacho scored as Real Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao 1-0 on Sunday to keep their La Liga title hopes alive until the final day of the season.

The first half at San Mames saw not a single shot on target, as Athletic’s defence kept Madrid at arm’s length. The visitors were denied a penalty by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz when Jon Morcillo handled Alvaro Odriozola’s cross inside the box, while Athletic went closest when winger Alex Berenguer fired a low free kick wide.

The game improved after half-time. Eder Militao headed over the bar and Thibaut Courtois saved from Morcillo before Luka Modric’s effort was palmed away by Unai Simon. Casemiro hit the bar with a header, and then crossed for Nacho to give Madrid the lead. Substitute Raul Garcia was sent off late on, and the result left Madrid on 81 points, hoping that leaders Atletico Madrid — on 83 points — slip up next weekend.

Positives

The only requirement on a hectic afternoon of La Liga action was that Real Madrid went into the final day of the season with a chance of winning the league. Everything else, performance included, was secondary. They got the win with a much-improved second-half display, and for a time looked like becoming favourites to be crowned champions while Atletico were behind to Osasuna.

Once again, this match saw stalwarts like Casemiro, Modric and Nacho step up to deliver the goods, when the team desperately needed it. Madrid have a habit of performing when it really matters, and they displayed it again here, even if it might not prove enough to win the league.

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Negatives

A tired-looking Madrid were largely frustrated by Athletic in the first half, showing a lack of verve and creative spark. In attack, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo offered next to nothing, while Karim Benzema had a quiet afternoon too. Eden Hazard came off the bench to little effect — while the fact that he was on the bench at all for a game of such magnitude shows how far his stock has fallen.

Manager rating out of 10

7 — Zinedine Zidane made just one change to the team that comfortably beat Granada in midweek, with Odriozola replacing the injured Marvin Park at right-back. That meant leaving Hazard, Marco Asensio and Isco on the bench again. With fervid speculation about his future raging, Zidane was, as ever, the calm in the eye of the storm, and delivered again under pressure at San Mames in what could be his second-to-last game in charge.

Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK Thibaut Courtois, 7 — Wasn’t tested at all in the first half. Dealt with Morcillo’s effort after half-time.

DF Alvaro Odriozola, 7 — His cross could have won Madrid a first-half penalty. Much better than he’s looked in the past.

DF Eder Militao, 7 — His stock has risen stratospherically in recent months. Headed a second-half chance over the bar.

DF Nacho, 8 — Scored the crucial goal. Hasn’t got as many headlines as Militao but has been every bit as important with Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane missing.

DF Miguel Gutierrez, 7 — Nothing as spectacular as his midweek assist for Modric, but a solid performance.

MF Casemiro, 8 — Crucial. Came closer than anyone to opening the scoring when he rattled the crossbar, and then provided the delivery for Nacho to find the net.

MF Federico Valverde, 7 — Hasn’t always hit the heights this season but brings so much energy to the midfield, which is desperately needed at this stage.

MF Luka Modric, 8 — Impressed yet again. Tested Simon from distance in the second half and never stopped moving.

FW Vinicius Junior, 7 — Tried his best, bless him, but the flaws in his game (largely related to end product) haven’t gone anywhere yet. Subbed off early.

FW Rodrygo, 6 — Fairly anonymous before being taken off in the second half.

FW Karim Benzema, 7 — Starved of service, Benzema didn’t look close to adding to his 22 league goals here.

Substitutes

FW Marco Asensio, 6 — Replaced Vinicius with half an hour left.

FW Eden Hazard, N/R — Came on for Rodrygo, but contributed little.

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