King Karim shows Barcelona his champion class as Real Madrid skipper looks set for Ballon d'Or glory

By Sports Desk October 16, 2022

Karim Benzema should collect the Ballon d'Or trophy in Paris on Monday. The votes have been counted, and nobody seriously expects another outcome, even with football's propensity for surprise when it comes to a ballot.

But as if to emphasise his outstanding candidacy for France Football's coveted world player of the year award, Benzema scored and captained Real Madrid to victory over Barcelona in El Clasico, football's biggest domestic game.

One man does not make a team, but without Benzema it was a guileless Real Madrid that took a hideous 4-0 whacking by Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu in March.

It was back to normal service on Sunday, the skipper delivering the sort of accomplished centre-forward performance he has repeated time and again in recent seasons, playing a key role in a 3-1 win that sent Madrid three points clear of Xavi's upstart Barca at the top of LaLiga.

This is imperial phase Benzema, at the most revered and most productive stage of his career. Last season, he hit 44 goals in 46 games for Madrid, helping Carlo Ancelotti's team win not only the Spanish league but the Champions League.

Long gone are the days when he was a subordinate to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and even perhaps Gareth Bale for a time. In his 14th season now at Madrid, Benzema is the great survivor, the man who rises to the big occasions.

He came off in the 88th minute of this game to a standing ovation, having got the better of rival number nine Robert Lewandowski, whose Clasico debut was one to forget.

 

Barcelona's thumping win at this stadium was a curio in Madrid's 2021-22 season and rightly treated as such. With Benzema ruled out by a leg injury, Carlo Ancelotti deployed Luka Modric in a false nine position to which he was spectacularly ill-suited, and Barcelona ran the hosts ragged, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring twice in the rout.

El Clasico has not been Benzema's most productive fixture, and it has been the Frenchman's longevity as much as anything that means only Lionel Messi has had more goal involvements in such matches during the 21st century. Messi had 40 (26 goals and 14 assists), and Benzema now has 21 (12 goals and nine assists).

In LaLiga, Benzema had played in 25 of these games before Sunday's encounter, winning only eight (D5 L12) and scoring just seven goals – including just one goal since April 2016.

Considering his overall record for Madrid showed Benzema hitting 327 goals in 614 games, this represented a disappointing tally.

LaLiga newcomer Lewandowski, meanwhile, could point to six goals in eight games on Champions League duty against Madrid, four of those coming for Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of the 2012-13 semi-final. Nobody has scored more against Madrid in the history of that competition.

Would this be a shoot-out between Benzema and Lewandowski? If so, first blood went to Benzema. Toni Kroos, being grappled with by Sergio Busquets, prodded the ball into space for Vinicius Junior down the left, and the Brazilian's acceleration took him clear of the Barcelona backline.

Four Barcelona defenders gave desperate chase, and when Ter Stegen palmed away the winger's shot, it ran only as far as the unattended Benzema.

He had skilfully held his run, and from 12 yards side-footed through that thicket of defenders, who had all but forgotten about him.

Benzema tore away towards the corner flag, kissing the badge on his shirt, arms open wide, a familiar pose in these parts.

Barcelona had conceded just once in their opening eight LaLiga games. Here they were up against it, yet they should have been level in the 25th minute when Raphinha's low ball across goal from the right was scooped over by a stretching Lewandowski at the far post.

It was quite some miss, particularly by the standards of the man who scored 50 goals for Bayern Munich last term.

Madrid's second goal came in the 35th minute and was rather splendid, Federico Valverde slamming into the bottom-left corner from 20 yards for his fourth goal of the season, the most he has managed in a single LaLiga campaign.

Barcelona had twice as many shots as Madrid in the first half (8-4) and 62.3 per cent of possession, but they trailed 3-2 in attempts on target – and by two clear goals.

All the passing accuracy in the world is no assurance of goals (Barca led this metric in the first half too – 91.8 per cent to Madrid's 84.4).

Benzema thought he had added a third for Madrid when he struck in style early in the second half, but he had strayed offside before receiving the ball.

Barcelona had plenty of chances (they finished the game 2.26 to 1.44 ahead on expected goals), and Lewandowski had a strong case for a penalty in the 74th minute when Dani Carvajal barged him over, but that did not even go to a VAR check.

 

Finally, Barca got a goal when Ferran Torres tucked in from close range in the 83rd minute, but hopes of a point were scotched in stoppage time when Rodrygo's penalty, after Eric Garcia trod on his toes, wrapped up the home win.

Benzema by then had a comfortable seat at pitchside, resting up before heading off for what should be a coronation at the Theatre du Chatelet in his home capital city.

Barcelona's unbeaten start in LaLiga is over, and they face likely Champions League elimination before the World Cup rolls around.

This is sweet music to Madrid ears, Benzema conducting the orchestra with aplomb once again.

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