Football: Real Madrid aim to bounce back from Copa del Rey defeat by Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Bilbao's Inigo Martinez (left) tackles Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior (centre) during the Spanish Copa del Rey quarter-final match in Bilbao, on Feb 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

MADRID (REUTERS) - Real Madrid will turn their attention back to maintaining their lead at the top of the La Liga standings after suffering a disappointing 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao on Thursday (Feb 3) in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.

The leaders host Granada on Sunday (Feb 6) as the Spanish league returns after a two-week hiatus due to the rescheduled South American World Cup qualifiers that were postponed from last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti was criticised after the loss at Bilbao for his decision to play Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo, who were barely rested after returning from international duty with Brazil earlier in the week.

The Italian tactician opted to play the youngsters instead of veteran forwards Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, who had two extra weeks to rest and get in shape but were once again left on the bench.

Real looked tired in Bilbao and were clearly hampered by the absence of French striker Karim Benzema, who is still recovering from a leg muscle injury.

Ancelotti faces a selection headache again as Vinicius is suspended for Sunday's game and Benzema is being carefully managed in his recovery to hopefully play in their Champions League last-16 first leg against Paris St Germain on Feb 15.

La Liga's game of the week will be at Nou Camp, where Barcelona will host champions Atletico Madrid with both teams trying to fight back after struggling in the beginning of the season.

Real lead the standings on 50 points from 22 games, four points ahead of second-placed Sevilla. Atletico are fourth with 36 points, one more than Barcelona. They both have one game in hand.

Atletico will travel without French forward Antoine Griezmann who is injured. Barca boss Xavi Hernandez will have at his disposal new signings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Adama Traore, who both arrived this week from the English Premier League.

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