Didier Deschamps hailed the complementary partnership between Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe after France ended their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 2-0 win over Finland.

Benzema's deflected 66th-minute effort and a sublime individual goal from Mbappe, who had teed up the Real Madrid star for the opener, 10 minutes later ensured victory for Les Bleus in Helsinki.

The result denied Finland a place in the play-offs as Ukraine finished second in Group D. France, meanwhile, end qualifying unbeaten and are undefeated in their past 27 competitive matches, though that run includes the stunning Euro 2020 shoot-out loss to Switzerland, a streak that stretches back to June 2019.

"We must not forget Antoine Griezmann," Deschamps said afterward when asked about Benzema and Mbappe. 

"It looks easy because the two players are technically complementary.

"They will have a lot of club matches between now and our next meetings. But the combination of all these talents allows the France team to be even more efficient."

Asked about the unbeaten run, he replied: "These are numbers. There are also 13 away matches. This shows the strength of this France team. The quality is there with the addition of new players, young or old.

"It's great to end the calendar year with this victory in Finland."

Reflecting on the year, Deschamps said: "It is a positive result if I rule out 10 minutes of fatal loss of the Euro. 

"We win the Nations League and then we qualify without trembling for the World Cup. 

"We end the calendar year undefeated even if the draw against Switzerland is a defeat despite everything. The France team has shown that it remains competitive.

"There are still improvements and things that could be improved."

France ended Finland's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time as a 2-0 win in Helsinki condemned the Nordic nation to third place in UEFA qualifying Group D.

With France's place at Qatar 2022 already secured, attention in the group was firmly on the battle for a place in the play-offs between Finland and Ukraine.

Finland began the night in the box seat, two points ahead of Ukraine, but the situation was turned on its head in the second half.

Oleksandr Zinchenko and Artem Dovbyk secured a 2-0 win for Ukraine over Bosnia-Herzegovina while Karim Benzema's deflected strike and a superb individual effort from Kylian Mbappe saw the reigning world champions claim maximum points as Finland fell at the final hurdle.

A long-range Mbappe effort was the most threatening chance France could muster in a first half where both sides had just one shot on target.

France were forced to withdraw Leo Dubois after he was injured late in the opening period, with Benjamin Pavard filling in at right-back after the break.

The change had no impact on France's control of the game, with Les Bleus' backline rarely tested, and it was the visitors who eventually found a way through in somewhat fortuitous fashion in the 66th minute

Benzema and Mbappe played a neat one-two and the Real Madrid forward's effort nicked off Leo Vaisanen and beyond Lukas Hradecky.

Finland's goalkeeper was beaten in more convincing fashion 10 minutes later, Mbappe burning Vaisanen for pace down the left and bending an unerring finish into the bottom-right corner.

Hradecky's brilliant save denied Mbappe a second, with the Paris Saint-Germain star's second-half performance illustrating the gulf in class that made sure Finland will watch next year's World Cup from home.

Didier Deschamps hailed a "beautiful" win for his France side after Kylian Mbappe inspired Les Bleus to an 8-0 thrashing of Kazakhstan.

Mbappe scored a first-half hat-trick at Parc des Princes, paving the way for Karim Benzema, Adrien Rabiot and Antoine Griezmann to get in on the act after the break.

The Paris Saint-Germain star rounded off the scoring as France booked their place at the Qatar World Cup in truly excellent fashion.

It was an emotional match on Saturday, with the game played six years to the day since the terrorist attacks that took place across Paris on November 13, 2015. 

In total, 130 people were killed across separate incidents, with one target having been the Stade de France, which was at the time hosting a game between France and Germany.

With tributes paid before kick-off, Griezmann celebrated his goal by lifting up his jersey to show a shirt with "13/11/15" and a love heart. 

And on a significant day in France's history, Deschamps believes France's performance delivered.

"It is a very beautiful evening of football, even if we do not forget that it is a day of remembrance," Deschamps told M6.

"The objective was to qualify, but in addition there is the manner [in which it is done] and the pleasure that the players have playing together, the understanding between them, especially the forwards.

"It is good, everyone had their piece of the pie. It's a result that rewards everything we did well. We had the right tempo. The risk is always to relax a little but we continued."

Star of the show Mbappe added: "The most important thing was qualifying. We wanted to give ourselves this chance to defend our title.

"Even for those who played and won it, it remains an unimaginable dream to play in a World Cup. We respected the game and the opponent, we wanted to hurt until the end."

Mbappe is the first player to score four goals in a game for France since Just Fontaine in June 1958, against West Germany.

The 22-year-old also got an assist when he teed up Benzema's second goal of the game - a strike that saw the latter overtake David Trezeguet as France's fifth-top scorer (35).

"I am proud of it. Trezeguet, he is a legend and that makes me happy, but the most important thing is to participate in a victory," said Benzema.

France have now qualified for a 14th consecutive major tournament, having not failed to do so since missing out on the 1994 World Cup.

France boss Didier Deschamps confirmed Karim Benzema will be available for their penultimate World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan on Saturday.

The world champions sit top of Group D and will qualify for Qatar 2022 if they win either of their final two games against Kazakhstan and Finland.

Benzema was taken off in the 83rd minute of Real Madrid's 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano by coach Carlo Ancelotti last weekend, but Deschamps said he is on course to play for his country despite a "small problem".

At a media conference ahead of Saturday's match, the former Monaco and Juventus head coach was asked about the availability of Benzema and reassured reporters. He said: "He didn't do a collective session but did some very good [individual sessions]. We took no risks.

"Karim also knows how to manage himself after a small problem with Madrid. He will participate in the session and will be available this Saturday."

Deschamps also hinted he is considering starting Bayern Munich's Kingsley Coman, saying: "Coman is an option out wide but not only on this match. He is an option for the start or during the match.

"It depends on whether we have the ball or not. This requires defensive adjustments on the coverage of the areas. This may be an option."

France go into the game against Kazakhstan as heavy favourites, with the visitors to the Parc des Princes bottom of the group having taken just three points from seven games, but Deschamps refuses to take them lightly.

Deschamps, who saw France win 2-0 in the reverse fixture in March, added: "It wasn't an easy game there. I had Kazakhstan's last two games scouted. There is a well-defined system choice.

"I am not going to talk about the weak points. The team knows how to defend and knows that we have to make efforts together. It is a block, a team that does not give up and fights to the end.

"We must not underestimate this team and respect them as we did in the first game."

Captain Hugo Lloris also faced the media and emphasised the need for Les Bleus to try and wrap up qualification at the first time of asking against Kazakhstan.

The Tottenham goalkeeper said: "We will say that we know what we have to do, and that is to ensure a victory on Saturday. This would be ideal to stamp our ticket for Qatar.

"Once again everything remains to be done on the field against an opponent who will do everything to challenge us. We will have to score quickly and try to have a good time with our supporters and continue our phase of progression after winning the Nations League."

France's last game was the Nations League final success against Spain in October, and when asked about the 2-1 win, Lloris said: "When you win there is always a smile. We were honest about our situation after the Euros. There were moments of doubt but we showed our mental and collective strength through adversity.

"The matches against Belgium and Spain bear witness to this. It is always good to win with the national team, it has a special feel. The goal now is Qatar and we have to do the job on Saturday."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's future is in doubt as Manchester United continue to struggle.

United were outclassed effortlessly by neighbours Manchester City in Saturday's Premier League derby.

Struggling for form, Solskjaer could pay the price at Old Trafford.

 

TOP STORY – SOLSKJAER SET FOR AXE?

Manchester United are considering the departure of under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to the Daily Mail.

Manchester City eased past United 2-0 in the Premier League derby showdown at Old Trafford, where Solskjaer's side were left sixth and nine points off the pace.

There are reports of a player revolt as Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo grow frustrated with life in Manchester.

Zinedine Zidane and Ajax boss Erik ten Hag have been linked as possible replacements.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato claims Real Madrid and Newcastle United are interested in Liverpool star Mohamed Salah. The Egypt international, who is contracted to Liverpool until 2023, is keen to sign a new deal at Anfield.

City are weighing up a move for Juventus and Netherlands centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, says El Nacional. De Ligt has also been linked with Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United.

Karim Benzema is open to joining Paris Saint-Germain should Madrid sign Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund, per El Nacional. Benzema has reportedly snubbed a move to Newcastle, while Haaland has been linked with City, United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, PSG, Chelsea and Juve.

Gerard PiqueSergio BusquetsSergi Roberto and Jordi Alba will be allowed to leave Barca under new head coach Xavi, according to El Nacional. Fabrizio Romano adds Xavi will look to re-sign Pablo Gavi and Ousmane Dembele.

- Calciomercato claims Atletico Madrid are interested in Udinese's Nahuel Molina, who is also wanted by Inter.

Karim Benzema fully merits the plaudits for a stunning start to the season, according to Real Madrid team-mate Toni Kroos.

Benzema scored Madrid's second goal in a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday and leads LaLiga for both goals (10) and assists (seven).

He has now been directly involved in 22 goals in 15 matches for Madrid in all competitions this season, trailing only Bayern Munich talisman Robert Lewandowski (25 involvements in 17 matches) of players in Europe's top-five leagues.

"I see what Karim does in training and how he plays and deserves every success," Kroos told Movistar.

"But what matters to me is what you win with us. I am happy with my goal but because it helped us win. The individual awards do not interest me much.

"We came from a tough match in the Champions League and at 2-1 you suffer a little. Vinicius has helped us a lot so far, in difficult times too, and I hope he continues like this."

Benzema has now reached 10 goals in 11 of his 13 seasons in La Liga (10 in 2021-22) and only former Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi (15) has scored 10-plus goals in more campaigns in the competition in the 21st century than the French striker.

The 33-year-old Benzema was substituted by Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti with seven minutes left and replaced by Eden Hazard.

Ancelotti felt Benzema could have got more goals – having had one struck off by VAR early in the first half before he netted from close range – but suffered from fatigue in the second half.

"It's quite rare that Karim misses the opportunities we've had," Ancelotti added. "I have removed him because he was tired."

Rayo pulled a goal back through former Atletico Madrid striker Radamel Falcao, who has netted a goal every 67 minutes in LaLiga this season with the best ratio in the competition (five goals after 334 minutes played).

Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois admitted the failure to keep a clean sheet took the gloss of the victory and his team-mates must learn to grind out a victory if they are unable to be prolific in front of goal.

"It was part good and part bittersweet at the end," Courtois said.

"We controlled the game, but in the end they almost ended up drawing. Today the three points were very important. They have pushed and we don't take advantage of our chances to score more goals.

"We managed the game quite well, but in the penultimate corner they almost scored a goal and there we have to improve. The team has shown that it knows how to fight and that we are focused until the end. 

"We have to try to keep a clean sheet and close out the game. It's something we have to change because we have a lot of quality to score more goals."

Karim Benzema continued his fine form in front of goal as Real Madrid went top of LaLiga with a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.

Toni Kroos put Madrid ahead when he finished off a counter-attack in the 14th minute, the goal awarded after a VAR review having initially been ruled offside.

Benzema's 10th league goal of the season – and ninth in 10 against Rayo – made it two seven minutes before half-time, but Madrid sat back following the restart and Radamel Falcao's response ensured a tense finish.

Rayo could not quite forge an equaliser, though, and Madrid moved two points ahead of Real Sociedad at the summit at least until their trip to Osasuna on Sunday.

Alvaro Garcia had almost given Rayo a shock early lead when he broke clear of the Madrid defence only to send his shot wide, a chance that jolted Carlo Ancelotti's side into life.

Vinicius Junior had the ball in the net, yet the VAR determined Benzema had been offside in the build-up, and the France forward then lifted a shot over the crossbar from a good position before Kroos scored on the break, rifling in from Marco Asensio's cross and this time seeing the technology work in Madrid's favour.

Madrid went into the interval two goals ahead when Benzema got on the end of a superb teasing cross from David Alaba and calmly nudged the ball into the net at the back post.

Ferland Mendy teed up Benzema to curl over just after the hour, but a brief cameo from Falcao – introduced in the 69th minute before departing in the 81st – brought Rayo back into the reckoning as his header from Garcia's cross deflected off Alaba and deceived Thibaut Courtois.

Madrid fans then had their hearts in their mouths at the death when Oscar Valentin saw his shot blocked by Eduardo Camavinga and Kroos crucially cleared his follow-up effort off the line.

Olivier Giroud has questioned why Didier Deschamps did not give France's senior players any advance notice of Karim Benzema's return from international exile.

Real Madrid striker Benzema was named in France's Euro 2020 squad in May following an absence of nearly six years.

He had been frozen out by head coach Deschamps since 2015 after becoming embroiled in a blackmail scandal involving international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema has strenuously denied he was complicit in attempted blackmail.

Looking to bolster his attacking options, Deschamps decided the time was right to bring back Benzema ahead of the European Championship, but Giroud believes the move proved unsettling to France's established way of playing.

Giroud has not featured for France since their last-16 elimination at Euro 2020, when the World Cup winners bowed out on penalties to Switzerland, and it remains to be seen whether the 35-year-old's international career is over.

Addressing Benzema's surprise return, Giroud told L'Equipe: "[It] created a tactical imbalance at the team level and in the way we play. I say this frankly, and without anything against Karim.

"The France team was able to overcome this problem of tactical adaptation much later. We have seen this, especially with the Nations League [which France won in October].

"But it took a long time. Karim quickly changed our way of playing which had been well established with certain offensive profiles for five years.

"The mix didn't work overnight, especially before a competition like the Euros."

Commenting on Deschamps' decision to seemingly spring the selection on the rest of the players, Giroud said: "It was the will of the coach to proceed like that.

"He preferred that it not be heard. I can understand it. Now who am I in his eyes for him to call me first? He is the sole decision-maker.

"But I would have appreciated being warned, that he warned certain senior figures."

Giroud is second on the list of France's all-time leading scorers, netting 46 goals, of which 45 have come during Deschamps' nine years at the helm.

Only Thierry Henry (51) has more goals for France than the former Chelsea and Arsenal forward, who is now at Milan.

He was absent from the squad that won the Nations League, when Benzema and Kylian Mbappe scored in the final against Spain.

"It was a weird feeling, even though I was happy for the guys in front of my TV," Giroud said. "It's hard not to experience that with this squad that I have known for a long time, and with whom I have shared so many beautiful things. Like any sensitive person, I had a twinge in my heart."

Karim Benzema conceded Real Madrid were far from their best in a 2-1 Champions League win over Shakhtar Donetsk that saw them whistled by the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.

Benzema made history for Madrid in the first half as his 14th-minute strike marked Los Blancos' 1,000th goal in the Champions League/European Cup.

However, Fernando equalised for Shakhtar six minutes before half-time, with Alan Patrick also hitting the post for the visitors in the first half.

Only the reflexes of Thibaut Courtois prevented Fernando from giving Shakhtar the lead before the interval, but Madrid were better in the second half, which saw Benzema restore their lead following a neat move involving Vinicius Junior and Casemiro.

The win moved Madrid top of Group D ahead of Sheriff's clash with Inter later on Wednesday.

"The most important thing is the three points. We don't play well and we win," Benzema told Movistar. "Sometimes you can't play well. It's normal that the fans want us to always play well, attack and score goals. We try but it doesn't always work out.

"We play every three days and it is difficult. In the end there are many high-level matches like today. Sometimes you win like this, without playing well but in the end we won."

Karim Benzema conceded Real Madrid were far from their best in a 2-1 Champions League win over Shakhtar Donetsk that saw them whistled by the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.

Benzema made history for Madrid in the first half as his 14th-minute strike marked Los Blancos' 1,000th goal in the Champions League/European Cup.

However, Fernando equalised for Shakhtar six minutes before half-time, with Alan Patrick also hitting the post for the visitors in the first half.

Only the reflexes of Thibaut Courtois prevented Fernando from giving Shakhtar the lead before the interval, but Madrid were better in the second half, which saw Benzema restore their lead following a neat move involving Vinicius Junior and Casemiro.

The win moved Madrid top of Group D ahead of Sheriff's clash with Inter later on Wednesday.

"The most important thing is the three points. We don't play well and we win," Benzema told Movistar. "Sometimes you can't play well. It's normal that the fans want us to always play well, attack and score goals. We try but it doesn't always work out.

"We play every three days and it is difficult. In the end there are many high-level matches like today. Sometimes you win like this, without playing well but in the end we won."

Karim Benzema's double propelled Real Madrid to a 2-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk as they at least temporarily moved top of Champions League Group D.

A woeful defensive error from Shakhtar enabled Benzema to give Madrid the lead in the 14th minute, Los Blancos becoming the first team to reach 1,000 Champions League/European Cup goals.

Shakhtar responded superbly and levelled matters when Fernando powered home their first goal of the group stage.

Yet Madrid were much improved in the second half, and predictably it was Benzema who provided the decisive touch after wonderful build-up play from Vinicius Junior and Casemiro.

Luka Modric could have given Madrid the lead in the fifth minute as he was played in on goal at the end of a well-worked move only to be thwarted by a superb save by Anatolii Trubin.

Alan Patrick offered an early glimpse of Shakhtar's threat when he hit the post with a long-range drive, but the visitors then gifted Madrid their landmark goal in bemusing fashion.

Trubin played a short pass out to Marlon Santos, only for the centre-back to immediately cede possession to Vinicius, who teed up Benzema for a simple tap-in.

Modric was again thwarted by Trubin before Fernando was unfortunate to see an effort deflected wide as Shakhtar continued to pose Madrid problems.

Fernando got the equaliser Shakhtar's response to the goal deserved, lashing a volley beyond Thibaut Courtois from Patrick's chest down, and it needed a fine save from the Belgium international to prevent the same pair from combining to put the visitors ahead before half-time.

But Shakhtar were left to rue their earlier profligacy as Vinicius and Casemiro played a silky one-two before the former again supplied the pass for Benzema to secure maximum points for Madrid with his 61st-minute effort.

Real Madrid are used to making Champions League history, and they wrote another chapter in the competition's record books on Wednesday.

Karim Benzema gave them the lead against Shakhtar Donetsk in the 14th minute at the Santiago Bernabeu, tapping in after Marlon Santos gave possession away to Vinicius Junior in his own box.

The goal may not have been one to live long in the memory, but it was a landmark one as it brought up Madrid's 1,000th in the Champions League/European Cup.

Madrid, who have won the competition a record 13 times, are the first team to reach four figures in the Champions League, and Shakhtar's play at the back in the first half suggested they could add to that tally before full-time in the Group D encounter.

Atletico Madrid are hoping to recover from losing to Liverpool on matchday three with a repeat of their Anfield heroics last March.

Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City will look to take bigger steps towards the last 16, while Real Madrid will go in search of another big win against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Inter can put themselves in a good position to progress, too, although city rivals Milan have got much more of a fight on their hands.

Here are some of the key Opta facts for Wednesday's Champions League matches...

 

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid: Can Suarez improve rotten recent record?

Atletico were winners at Anfield on their last visit as they claimed a 3-2 victory in the last-16 second leg in March 2020. Indeed, Liverpool have only twice beaten Spanish teams at home in 13 attempts in the European Cup and Champions League.

That said, the Marcos Llorente-inspired game last year was one of only two out of 22 at home that Jurgen Klopp has lost in this competition as Reds manager, while Diego Simeone is chasing what would only be the second instance of a third successive away win in the tournament with Atleti.

Luis Suarez will hope to haunt his old side, although recent history is against him: he's only scored one for Atleti in nine Champions League games, and none from open play. Mohamed Salah, meanwhile, needs one more goal to equal Steven Gerrard as Liverpool's top scorer in the competition at Anfield (14).

Manchester City v Club Brugge: Bad omens for Belgian champions

City's 5-1 triumph in Bruges on matchday three took their tally to six wins in seven European games against Belgian opposition, while Brugge are now without a victory over English teams in 13 attempts dating back to February 1995.

Since Pep Guardiola took charge, City have won 80 per cent (20 out of 25) of home Champions League matches, which is the best record for a coach at a single club in the competition among those to take charge of 20 or more. A first win on English soil for Brugge looks unlikely.

Might this be a chance for Raheem Sterling to impress? The England forward has been directly involved in 24 goals in 27 home Champions League games for City, a tally surpassed only by Sergio Aguero (27).

 

RB Leipzig v Paris Saint-Germain: Nkunku could outshine Messi

PSG have only lost one of their past nine away games in the group stage, but that defeat was against RB Leipzig last season. It was the only time in the previous seven meetings with French sides that Leipzig emerged victorious.

He might be enduring a difficult time in Ligue 1, but Lionel Messi has managed three goals in three games in Europe for PSG. His double in the reverse fixture was his 34th in the competition, something only Cristiano Ronaldo (37) can better.

However, perhaps the most in-form player in 2021-22 is Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku, who has been involved in the most open-play sequences ending in a goal (six) among Champions League midfielders this season. And he has four goals of his own from the first three matches.

Real Madrid v Shakhtar Donetsk: Another big win on the cards with Benzema

Madrid's 5-0 win over Shakhtar on matchday three means the past five meetings between these teams have seen an average of 4.6 goals scored per game. In fact, Los Blancos have scored 15 times in five Champions League matches against Shakhtar: that average of three per game is their best figure against a side they have faced on at least five occasions, apart from Galatasaray (3.4 per game).

Shakhtar are one of just three sides yet to score in this season's group stage, but with Madrid having lost three of their previous eight home games in the competition, this could be a good opportunity.

They will need to stop Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, though: they are the two players with the most involvements in shot-ending sequences in 2021-22 (31 and 34, respectively). Plus, Benzema is on a run of 10 goals in 10 home games in the competition.

 

Sheriff v Inter: Nothing shot-shy about Inzaghi's men

Inter ended Sheriff's 11-game unbeaten run in Europe last time out and will now look to secure consecutive Champions League victories for the first time since October 2018.

The Nerazzurri have lost just once in their previous five Champions League away matches, but Sheriff are unbeaten in their most recent five European games on home soil, excluding qualifiers. They've also won the past two.

Inter certainly have the variety to break down Sheriff's stubborn defence. Each of their previous 17 away goals in the competition have come from open play, while their 29 shots in the meeting on matchday three were the most by an Italian side in a Champions League game since at least 2003-04.

Other fixtures:

Borussia Dortmund v Ajax

45 – Ajax's 4-0 win over Dortmund last time out was the biggest victory by a Dutch side over a German team in Europe since November 1976, when Feyenoord defeated Kaiserslautern 5-0 in the UEFA Cup.

8 – Sebastien Haller has been directly involved in more Champions League goals this season than any other player (eight – six goals, two assists). Among debutants in the competition since 2003-04, this is the highest such figure over a player's first four appearances and one more than Erling Haaland managed.

Milan v Porto

3 – Milan are one of just four sides this season to have lost all three group games. They are on a five-game losing run in the competition, the worst such streak in their history.

1 – Since scoring four for Chelsea against Sevilla in December 2020, Olivier Giroud has scored only once in 250 minutes of play in the Champions League.

Sporting CP v Besiktas

5 – Paulinho has been directly involved in three of Sporting's five goals (two scored, one assisted) in this season's Champions League. Their last player to manage more goals and assists combined in a single season was Nani in 2014-15 (six).

10 – Michy Batshuayi has attempted 10 shots for Besiktas in the Champions League in 2021-22 without scoring. Over the first three matchdays, only Inter's Lautaro Martinez (12) had more shots without finding the net.

Real Madrid captain Karim Benzema will miss his first game of the season on Saturday after being left out of the squad for the trip to Elche.

Benzema is being rested, according to Spanish media reports, after playing in every match so far this season.

The 33-year-old French striker has played 1,158 minutes out of a possible 1,170 so far this term, and has hit 11 goals in 13 games across all competitions so far.

Benzema also has eight assists to his name for Madrid in 2021-22, five more than any other player on the team has managed.

He heads the LaLiga scoring charts with nine goals in that competition from just 10 games, but coach Carlo Ancelotti appears convinced that the skipper could do with a break, and assured that Madrid can cope for a game without him.

Elche sit 15th in the table and have lost nine of their last 10 encounters with Madrid in LaLiga, drawing only during this stretch in their last home meeting in the competition, 1-1 last December. They last beat Madrid in March 1978 (3-1).

The home side will be glad there is no sign of Benzema, given he has been directly involved in four goals in his last four LaLiga games against Elche (3 goals, 1 assist), including a brace in the last meeting in March, when he grabbed a stoppage-time winner in a 2-1 home victory.

 

Spanish newspaper Marca reported on its website that Benzema has experienced some discomfort in his instep in recent games, with Ancelotti deciding this was a convenient time to let him take a breather.

Benzema has not scored in his last two games, the 2-1 Clasico win over Barcelona and the midweek goalless draw with Osasuna.

Vinicius Jr, enjoying his best season yet for Madrid, features in the squad for Elche and will be aiming to add to his seven goals across all competitions already this season. The 21-year-old Brazilian has netted at a rate of one goal every 144.29 minutes.

Madrid sit second in LaLiga heading into the weekend, three points behind leaders Real Sociedad but with a game in hand, and on the same 21-point mark as Sevilla and Real Betis.

After the Elche game, Madrid return to Champions League action when they host Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, having beaten the Ukrainians 5-0 in Kiev in their last match in the competition.

Bayern Munich defender Dayot Upamecano said Robert Lewandowski and Real Madrid star Karim Benzema are both worthy of this year's Ballon d'Or.

Lewandowski and Benzema are among the nominees for football's most prestigious individual award – the 30-man shortlist will be whittled down to just three players.

Upamecano is team-mates with Lewandowski at Bundesliga champions Bayern, while he also plays alongside Benzema for World Cup and Nations League holders France.

Asked about Lewandowski and Benzema ahead of Bayern's Champions League fixture with Benfica on Wednesday, Upamecano replied: "Very good question!

"Lewandowski or Benzema, both of them deserve it [Ballon d'Or]. They are the two best strikers in the world. They prove it year after year.

"If Lewandowski wins, I would be very happy for him because he is my team-mate at Bayern. If Benzema wins, I also would be very happy for him."

Prior to Madrid's 5-0 rout of Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, Benzema had been involved in more shot-ending sequences of play (76) than any other player in the Champions League.

In this same period, Lionel Messi (12) was the only player who had recorded more multi-shot involvements than Benzema (10), which captures all instances of sequences where a player is both involved in the build-up and takes the shot.

Meanwhile, Lewandowski has scored five goals in six Champions League appearances against Portuguese opponents, including three against Benfica – no player has ever scored more times against sides from Portugal in the competition.

Bayern are on a record unbeaten run of 19 matches away from home in Champions League (W15 D4), netting 54 goals during this streak since losing 3-0 at Paris Saint-Germain in September 2017. Over a third of their goals in this unbeaten run have been scored by their Lewandowski (19 – 35 per cent).

German giants Bayern's eight unbeaten matches against Benfica in the European Cup/Champions League (W5 D3) is the joint-most by a team against an opponent since the tournament began in 1955 – Bayern versus Spartak Moscow (W5 D3) and Barcelona versus Lyon (W5 D3) have also faced eight times without ever losing.

Since the start of last season, Bayern have averaged more goals (3.2) and have a higher expected goals tally (2.6) per game than any other team in the Champions League. Among teams involved in both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 tournaments, they also have the highest shot conversion rate in this period (18.3 per cent).

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