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La Liga: Real beat Athletic 2-1 to end the year on a high

The league leaders knew one was not enough and wasted no time in doubling their lead. Ernesto Valverde won the ball back in the centre of the field and laid the ball for Eden Hazard.

IANS | Bilbao |

Karim Benzema scored two goals as Real Madrid ended the year 2021 with a superb away win over Athletic Bilbao, closing out the year with a 15-match unbeaten run.

Real flew out of the blocks San Mamés and that resulted in three swift goals inside the first 10 minutes — two for the visitors and one for the hosts. Toni Kroos fired off a warning shot in the opening minute but it was the next move of the match that yielded the first goal. The German’s one-touch lay-off was perfect for Benzema, who effortlessly whipped the ball into the far corner from the edge of the box.

The league leaders knew one was not enough and wasted no time in doubling their lead. Ernesto Valverde won the ball back in the centre of the field and laid the ball for Eden Hazard. The ball flicked off a defender and fell to Benzema, the Frenchman making no mistake as he swept it past goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala to complete his double in the seventh minute. That spurred the hosts into life and their first shot on goal ended up in the back of the net. Oihan Sancet scored a beautiful goal, his long-range effort flying in off the post leaving Thibaut Courtois with no chance.

The game suddenly opened up and Carlo Ancelotti’s side had the chance to increase their lead in an end-to-end spell on the half-hour mark. Hazard cut in from the right, making his way into the penalty area, and pulled the ball back for Benzema before De Marcos nicked it from him just when it looked like a goal was on the cards. Real looked to maintain possession, keep control and dictate the tempo of the match, while Athletic continued to play their trademark high pressing football throughout the second half.

On the hour mark, Williams came close to netting the equaliser but his shot flashed into the side-netting.

Roared on by their fans, the Red and Whites pressed forward and forced Real to defend with everything they had. Ancelotti’s side managed that with Vinicius Jr delivering a remarkable performance. Tiredness set in but the intensity didn’t drop in the final 15 minutes, as Hazard had the chance to score from a counter-attack, linking up well with Benzema and Vini Jr. in the 80th minute, but his left-footed effort was kept out by the home keeper.

Ancelotti freshened things up by bringing on Mariano Díaz, Luka Jovic, and Peter González, who kept up the tempo and helped Real claim three points from the match.