Benzema brace as Madrid beats Bilbao 2-1 in virus-hit game

National Sports

BARCELONA, Spain (AP)Karim Benzema struck two quick goals to lead Real Madrid to a 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday in a Spanish league game missing several players because of coronavirus infections.

Defending champion Atletico Madrid slumped to a fourth consecutive league defeat after losing 2-1 at Granada, extending its worst run in the competition since Diego Simeone took charge a decade ago.

A total of 12 players between Madrid and Bilbao missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19. That included Madrid midfielder Luka Modric and Bilbao’s Unai Simon, the goalkeeper for Spain’s national side.

Benzema started the scoring for the league leaders with a superb strike four minutes into the match at San Mames. He struck again in the seventh for his league-leading 15th goal of the season.

Oihan Sancet hit right back for the hosts to close out a wild first 10 minutes of the game.

Inaki Williams went close to grabbing an equalizer with a half-hour to play, but a defense anchored by Eder Militao held on to increase Madrid’s lead to eight points over second-place Sevilla.

The outbreak on Madrid’s squad gave Eden Hazard, Eduardo Camavinga, and Nacho Fernandez the opportunity to earn rare starts.

”I want to highlight the players who hadn’t played much were ready to go, that is the strength of a team that wants to compete,” said coach Carlo Ancelotti, whose side enters the winter break on a 15-game unbeaten streak in all competitions.

”Now to rest and get back those players who weren’t with us today… I think that we can have them all back after the holidays.”

The game came hours after the Spanish league strengthened its testing protocols to try to prevent teams being hit by outbreaks. In addition to Modric, Madrid was without David Alaba, Isco Alarcon, Marco Asensio, Rodrygo, Gareth Bale, Marcelo and backup goalkeeper Andriy Lunin. Besides Simon, Bilbao was without Inigo Martinez, Jokin Ezkieta and Alex Berenguer.

Benzema dazzled with his opening goal from the side of the area. The France striker stunned Bilbao when he used one touch to send a pass from Toni Kroos curling into the far corner of the net.

”What a striker, what a captain, what a player,” Ancelotti said.

Benzema’s second came after a poor touch by Bilbao defender Unai Nunez gifted him the ball with only Simon’s replacement, Julen Agirrezabala, to beat.

”I like this type of soccer in a great stadium like this, it makes me happy, but it makes me even happier to beat this good team,” said Benzema, who was applauded by the Bilbao crowd when substituted late.

Sancet struck from the edge of the area to send the ball in off the post.

”We had our chance to tie the match,” Bilbao coach Marcelino Garcia said. ”I am proud of how we played against a great league leader.”

ANOTHER LOSS

Atletico had not lost more than two league games in a row since Simeone became its coach in December 2011. This month it has lost to Mallorca, Real Madrid and Sevilla before its defeat in Granada.

Atletico started well with a goal from Joao Felix only three minutes after kickoff.

Darwin Machis then leveled in the 18th and Jorge Molina scored from a cross by Granada striker Luis Suarez to complete the comeback in the 61st.

Atletico was left in fifth place, some 17 points off Madrid’s pace.

”We are not getting the wins like we used to,” Simeone said. ”Many times we won games we did not deserve to win, now we are losing games we deserved to win. Lapses in concentration in the little details is costing us games.”

Molina was coming off a record-setting match on Sunday when he became the oldest player in Europe’s top five leagues to score a hat trick at 39 years and 241 days in a 4-1 win over Mallorca.

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