Zinedine Zidane happy with Real Madrid spirit as Athletic Bilbao beaten
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane hailed his team's "personality" in getting a "very important" three points in the title race by beating Athletic Bilbao 2-1 away on Saturday afternoon.
Karim Benzema's well-taken first-half goal was cancelled out by Aritz Aduriz's header, but Casemiro fired in at a corner to give Madrid the win. The victory puts them five points clear of Barcelona in the title race -- at least until Luis Enrique's side play at home to Valencia on Sunday evening.
After becoming the first team since Barca in August to win in any competition at San Mames, in a tough physical battle which saw Athletic have both more possession and more shots on goal, Zidane told the postmatch news conference this was the type of performance his team would need to keep putting in if they are to win the league.
"We got the points in a really difficult stadium," Zidane said. "We suffered a lot, but played with personality.
"It is a game in which it was very important to get the points. We have 11 games to play now. We are leaders, but that does not mean anything. We must play games like today, against tough teams, difficult games. It is good to get the points today, for sure."
Madrid ended the game defending on the edge of their own penalty area, with goalkeeper Keylor Navas cautioned for timewasting late on, but Zidane said it was normal for his team to have endured difficult circumstances against such opponents.
"Athletic are a team who never give up until the end," he said. "They pushed us back, made it difficult for us in the end. We suffered. It is very difficult to pick up points here, but we did it."
Zidane surprised with his substitutions, replacing midfielder Luka Modric with winger Lucas Vazquez and then Cristiano Ronaldo with playmaker Isco.
"In the end we needed to have a bit more balance, with a line of four, to be closer together," Zidane said. "They had made their changes and were using the wings. We put Lucas on the right to help [full-back] Dani Carvajal. Gareth [Bale] was helping back too close to Keylor [on the other wing].
"The change of Ronaldo there is nothing. He can be taken off sometimes. He is just happy we won the game. Cristiano gave a lot during the game, as did Gareth, Karim, all of them. When you have to run up front it is more difficult, that's why we made those changes."
Zidane knocked back a suggestion from a local reporter that he might try and get some of his big name players back early from international duty over the next fortnight, while suggesting that he would have to use all his squad during what will be a key month of April in both La Liga and the Champions League.
"I am not getting into that," he said. "The players will go with their national teams. We cannot change this. I will rest, yes, but they won't. But that is what it is. When they come back from their national teams we have nine games in 25 days, and we will be playing for everything. We will see what happens. We are 24 [players] and we will need them all for sure."
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan