MADRID, Feb. 1 (Xinhua) -- Real Madrid can expect one of their most difficult games between now and the end of the season when they play away to Athletic Club Bilbao on Sunday evening.
Depending on the results of title rivals, FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, who both play earlier, Carlo Ancelotti's side could find themselves 4 points off the top of the table when the game kicks off and that will only add to the pressure in the new San Mames stadium.
Ancelotti maintains the doubt over the fitness of Gareth Bale as the big money signing struggles with his fifth muscle problem of the season and has not trained with his companions during the week.
Should Bale fail to recover his place will be taken either by youngster Jese Rodriguez, who has impressed of late, or by midfielder Asier Illaramendi if Ancelotti decides to push Angel Di Maria forward and play an extra holding midfielder.
That may not be a bad tactic against and Athletic side that despite losing in the Copa del Rey to Atletico Madrid in midweek, is in exceptional form of late, while Real Madrid now have to play Atletico themselves in the coming week.
The Basques have netted 15 goals in their last three league matches, hammering Almeria, Valladolid and Osasuna in the process and even in their 2-1 home defeat to Atletico Ernesto Valverde's team dominated for long periods and would have won had it not been for an inspired display by Atletico keeper, Thibaut Courtois.
That was the first defeat Athletic have suffered in front of their own fans all season and they have still to taste defeat in the Primera Liga in their own ground after a run of results which has lifted them to fourth place in the league table.
Valverde will have virtually a full squad to choose from with his main problem being whether to maintain Iker Muniain or the in-form Ibai Gomez in his starting 11, while Carlos Gurpegui will return to partner Aymeric Laporte in central defense.
Madrid meanwhile could opt for experience in what is likely to be a high-tension game and that could mean Alvaro Arbeloa getting the nod at right back ahead of the more attacking Dani Carvajal.
Meanwhile Cristiano Ronaldo continues in form and will start along with Karim Benzema, whose court case in France ended during the week with him being acquitted, while central defender Rafael Varene returns to the squad after almost three months on the sidelines with a knee injury.
Athletic are hurt after losing in the Cup, but such was the manner of their defeat that their moral remains intact and in San Mames they think there is no better way to bounce back from disappointment than giving their fans victory over a historic rival.