Smells like team spirit! Real prove unity and title credentials in Bilbao battle

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Zinedine Zidane's side won their most difficult remaining match in the Primera Division to boost their hopes of a first league crown since 2011-12


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All hands on deck. Real Madrid came through their toughest test left away from home in the title race by beating Athletic Club at San Mames on Saturday. It was not pretty, but it was a vital victory in the end - and one that could be crucial in the race to win La Liga.

Benzema and Casemiro on target as Madrid win in Bilbao

With away fixtures left against Leganes, Sporting Gijon, Deportivo La Coruna, Granada and Malaga (as well as a game in hand at Celta Vigo), this was easily Madrid's most difficult remaining Liga match on the road this term.

Anything other than a win would have opened the door again for fierce rivals Barcelona (now five points behind), but Madrid's attitude was spot on. Athletic had lost only one game at San Mames all season, versus Barca back in August, so Zinedine Zidane's men needed to approach this one with the right attitude.

As Marcelo said afterwards, "Every game here is really difficult. They move the ball really well, but the boss told us we'd have to give everything on the pitch and that's what we did." He wasn't wrong.

It was intense from the outset and Madrid were forced to defend in numbers and look to attack on the counter. And that is how they took the lead, as Cristiano Ronaldo squared for Karim Benzema to finish a clinical break in the first half.

Aritz Aduriz Sergio Ramos Athletic Bilbao Real Madrid La Liga

Benzema is often accused of a lack of fight, but the French forward was back in his own half on several occasions to recover the ball as Madrid defended in numbers to keep Athletic at bay. And when the home side levelled through the evergreen Aritz Aduriz in the second period, Madrid did not panic either.

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Ultimately, as so often before this season, the winner came from a set piece as Toni Kroos swung in a corner, Ronaldo flicked on and Casemiro finished with ease at the far post.

Earlier, a strangely subdued Luka Modric was brought off by Zidane and, as Madrid looked to hold on to their advantage, the Frenchman also substituted Ronaldo. Neither appeared particularly impressed with the decision, but this was a collective effort and nothing else mattered.

Many things symbolised that. Ronaldo's generous play to assist his team-mates, Benzema tracking back, Casemiro netting the winner and Zidane's changes. The message was clear: the team comes first.

Inaki Williams Marcelo Athletic Bilbao Real Madrid La Liga

Aymeric Laporte Cristiano Ronaldo Athletic Bilbao Real Madrid La Liga

That is how league titles are won and it is a criticism often aimed at Madrid that this side are just a glamorous group of individuals capable of turning it on for the very biggest matches in the Champions Leagues and cup competitions, but who are often unwilling to dig deep and put in the hard work it takes to win the league.

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Real's record in the Primera Division has simply not been good enough in recent seasons. Los Blancos have won La Liga 32 times in their history, more times than anyone else, yet they have claimed the title only one in the past eight campaigns (with Barca winning eight of those).

In fact, the last time Madrid won the title was in 2011-12 and it was a 3-0 victory at San Mames that saw Jose Mourinho's men seal La Liga back then. And while there is still some way to go this time, this latest victory could prove to be just as important come the end of May.

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