Benitez had never won against Athletic Bilbao as a manager before this match and if there was one reason why he was able to win (apart from two Benzema goals )this time of asking was because of the midfield.
The trio of Modric, Kovacic and Kroos balanced the midfield with great effect. Isco was also employed as a midfielder but he played in a more advanced role by helping out Ronaldo and Benzema in attack.
It’s always a very fiery affair with Athletic Bilbao because they always play a high intensity match. The competitive nature of this away fixture meant that Real Madrid had to field a midfield which could help out in attack and in defense.
Modric started off the game with some intelligent pass interceptions and looked very relaxed on the ball at the back which allowed Real Madrid to retain possession in periods where momentum of the game was with Athletic Bilbao.
One of his dribbles in the attacking half lead to a free kick which allowed Real Madrid some time to recuperate from the constant onslaught of hard challenges from Bilbao.
Modric, as mentioned before countless times, is a player who is established on both ends of the pitch. He made some good runs in the first half and also made slide tackles to win back possession for Real Madrid.
His slide tackle a few minutes before half time was wondrous as it stopped Bilbao from mounting a last minute attack against Real Madrid.
In the second half, Modric played more like an orchestrator in the midfield rather than a defensive midfielder. His body feints allowed him to make space for himself to really weigh up his options on the pitch.
Athletic Bilbao players were not able to get to Modric because of this simple dribbling technique of feinting one way and going another, which Modric has perfected.
His defensive position and anticipatory skills have improved a lot since he came to Real Madrid. It was because of these skills that he was able to steal the ball away numerous times against Athletic Bilbao.
Modric’s clever brack tracking defensive runs and fakes allowed him to be very effective for Real Madrid on both ends of the pitch. He did get fouled badly on one occasion while attempting a feint.
His only negative contribution was a bad curled long ball intended for Ronaldo late in the 2nd half.
Got a rare start under Benitez and he made sure that Benitez took notice. His playing style is almost a mirror image of Modric’s. Like Modric, Kovacic is very good in attack and reasonable in defense though not as good as Modric.
He does have time on his side to improve in that aspect of his game though.
His weighted passes from the midfield position to the wings very instrumental in opening up Athletic Bilbao’s defenses and let’s be honest here. Real Madrid could have scored six or seven goals against Bilbao.
Madrid had some twenty odd shots on target but were unable to finish off Bilbao.
Kovacic’s brilliant interception and pass to release Ronaldo with a single touch was the highlight of his performance against Bilbao. He combined really well with Ronaldo and Carvajal on the wings to wreak havoc on Bilbao’s defense.
Kovacic took a good on-the-turn shot from inside the penalty area after Ronaldo’s headed pass, from a accurate Carvajal cross from the right, landed just behind Kovacic just before half time.
Kovacic tested the keeper again with a quick but powerful snap shot with his left foot from five yards out just before half time.
It was a great save from Bilbao’s goalkeeper after Ronaldo had started a brilliant move from the midfield with a flick pass to Kovacic who put Benzema on the run on the left hand side.
Benzema ran into the penalty area from the right and whipped in a strong low pass which Kovacic controlled to perfection before taking that snap shot.
Kovacic’s ability to form a nice mix with Modric and Kroos was vital to Real Madrid’s defense. It was because of his ability to bring his teammates into play that Real Madrid defended so compactly against Bilbao.
Versus Bilbao, it should have become clear to anyone that Kovacic’s passing and ball control is good enough to get him into the starting eleven.
Kovacic was substituted in the 88th minute of the game with Lucas Vasques who barely had time to make an impact.
His only visible contribution was a backtracking run to help out the defense in the 93rd minute of the game.
Acted as mute general in the midfield. His calm control of the ball and silky smooth passing at the back allowed Real Madrid to settle nicely into the game.
His one touch passing is the very reason why Real Madrid don’t get bogged down at the back or in the midfield.
Like Modric, Kroos is also a box to box midfielder. In the beginning of the first half Kroos’s solid defending and then one touch pass was enough to set Real Madrid for a great counter attacking move.
His one touch defending and passing released Ronaldo who passed it to Isco, who then crossed it to Benzema who passed it, guess who, back to Kroos on the edge of the box for curl shot which went just over the bar.
Lot’s of ‘who’s’ there but the point to be noted is that Kroos started the move from a defensive position and then finished it off at the other end of the field with a inside right foot shot which was not on target.
His sliding interceptions were very accurate in the middle of the park but his awareness wasn’t too sharp as he got mugged from behind in the second half which gave the ball back to Bilbao during a critical period of the game.
After all, it is a skill on its own to get away from challenges and stay safe from brutal tackles.
On the defensive side, Kroos’s tackling ability was very sharp all night and should count himself unlucky to get booked for a handball in an innocuous position. Replay showed it to be something of ‘stomach ball’ rather than a handball.
Kroos graciously accepted a yellow card for a non existent foul.
Real Madrid’s midfield didn’t buckle in a very hostile environment which is sign that Real Madrid will be able to fight it out with the big guns of Europe.
Midfield dominance has always been a problem for Real Madrid but the trio of Modric, Kroos and Kovacic provide that balance between attack and defense that Real Madrid lacked in the previous seasons.