The Catalans piled the pressure on their Madrid rivals earlier on Sunday night when they at least temporarily opened up a six-point gap with a narrow win against Getafe.
But Real responded in kind on their travels to Spain’s Basque region.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side beat Villarreal in their last La Liga game on December 7 and have been exclusively in Supercopa de Espana and Cope del Rey action since then.
After leaving Villarreal in the Copa in midweek to right the wrongs of their league defeat, Real come into this game in Bilbao needing a win.
There were relatively few big chances and it was actually Athletic who tried their luck more freely. That being said, all but three of their 18 attempts were off target and Thibaut Courtois was unfazed. Real only had four shots on target themselves, but they were far more clinical.
Los Blancos took the lead midway through the first half when Karim Benzema scored a stunning left-footed volley on the swivel. Marco Asensio takes credit for the assist but it wasn’t a particularly great header and it was certainly all Benzema’s work.
Both sides felt each other out and exchanged half chances before that. However, the goal seemed to lift Real and Athletic retreated, nor could they really get much going early in the second and Nacho should have doubled the lead on the hour mark with two successive chances.
Athletic began to pull back a little more as the half went on, yet it was Real who still came closest to scoring again. This time Asensio was guilty of missing the target from a good position when he only had to slide it past Unai Simon.
Nico Williams missed a chance at the far post, while Athletic later had the ball in the net from Inaki Williams but was ruled out by an offside flag. The visitors then pushed hard for an equaliser, rediscovering their earlier energy, but Real’s hammer blow came from last-minute substitute Toni Kroos when he converted a low shot from 20 yards.
Athletic Club player ratings (4-2-3-1)
GK: Simon (5); RB: De Marcos (6), CB: Vivian (6), CB: Paredes (6), LB: Berchiche (7); CM: Zarraga (7), CM: Vesga (6); RM: N. Williams (6), AM: Sancet (6), LM: Berengeur (6); ST: I. Williams (6)
Guruzeta (6), Herrera (6), Muniain (6), Lekue (6), Garcia (N/A)
Real Madrid player ratings (4-3-3)
GK: Courtois (8); RB: Nacho (7), CB: Militao (7), CB: Rudiger (7), LB: Mendy (7); CM: Valverde (7), CM: Camavinga (7), CM: Ceballos (6); RW: Asensio (7), ST: Benzema (8), LW: Vinicius Jr (7)
Modrid (5), Rodrygo (7), Kroos (7)