Karim Benzema produced just a second La Liga hat-trick in his decade at Real Madrid to earn an ultimately convincing 3-0 triumph against Athletic Bilbao.
After a bitty first half that was littered by fouls rather than chances, the rejuvenated French striker burst into life. On 47 minutes, a tremendous interception from reserve centre-back Jesus Vallejo fuelled a counter-attack from which an unmarked Benzema nodded home forward Marco Asensio’s inch-perfect cross.
The lead was doubled on 76 minutes when Ballon d’Or holder Luka Modric swung in a deep corner from which Benzema struck an 11th headed goal of the season. The most-convincing win of Zinedine Zidane’s return to the Los Blancos dugout was completed during injury time when substitute Gareth Bale forced a rushed clearance from AWOL goalkeeper Iago Herrerin and Benzema classily lobbed home from 25 yards into an unguarded goal.
This result kept third-placed Madrid four points behind city rivals Atletico, while hampering Bilbao’s push for Europa League qualification. Here are the player ratings from Santiago Bernabeu:
REAL MADRID (4-3-3)
Keylor Navas – 6: Precious little for the Costa Rica international to do. Is making most of Courtois’ absence.
Dani Carvajal – 7: The Spain right-back relished a spiky first half, in which Madrid made 11 fouls. Did well to put Cordoba off for a first-half header.
Raphael Varane – 6: Imperious France centre-back eased through the gears as Bilbao failed to threaten.
Jesus Vallejo – 7: Impressed upon a first La Liga start in almost a year. Showed remarkable pace to deny Williams and spark opener.
Marcelo – 6: Nothing bad, nothing especially good from one of Zidane’s trusted lieutenants.
Luka Modric – 6: Tried to provide calm amid the chaos. Kept things ticking over and swung in corner for Benzema’s second.
Casemiro – 6: Ensured Madrid did not lose the physical battle. Set platform for more gifted players to show flashes of brilliance.
Toni Kroos – 7: Drove forwards and played Asensio in to tee up Benzema breakthrough. Played some glorious – and trademark – cross-field balls to Marcelo.
Lucas Vazquez – 6: Rattled in an early collision with Berchiche. Did more work defensively than offensively.
Karim Benzema – 9: French striker notched just a second La Liga hat-trick, with his brace of headers moving him into double digits for the season with his head. Is now only two away from his Madrid high-water mark of 32 goals in 2011/12.
Marco Asensio – 7: Spain forward did so well to find an unmarked for second-half opener. This was a second assist in three matches, after a previous 11-game drought.
Gareth Bale – 6: Fluffed a one on one, to give further fuel to detractors at the Bernabeu. His pace, however, helped win corner for Benzema’s second and force calamitous keeping for hat-trick goal.
Isco – 6: Kept it tidy during his 20-minute cameo, but never truly threatened.
Brahim Diaz – N/A: Winter buy was afforded a fourth La Liga run-out.
Real Madrid’s desultory campaign continued with dropped points at local rivals Leganes on Monday night, with the visitors claiming a 1-1 draw as Karim Benzema’s second-half strike cancelled out a fine curled opener by Jonathan Silva.
It wasn’t a bad display from Los Blancos, but they could not convert their overall superiority into a winning goal and the lack of punch shown by his team made it clear just how much work head coach Zinedine Zidane faces to turn his team into contenders next season.
In particular, there must be a clear priority in the summer – and that kicks off our talking points from the game:
MISSING THAT CERTAIN SOMETHING
In many ways, this was a promising enough performance from Real Madrid.
Unlike past occasions this season, the team looked solid and organised. They showed a good shape defensively and were able to dominate possession without too much trouble against an opposing side who were largely content to sit back and play on the break.
It certainly wasn’t a bad display from Zidane’s men, who were in almost total control of the vast majority of action and left goalkeeper Keylor Navas with very little to do (he hadn’t made a single save before Leganes went ahead on the stroke of half-time). There was, however, just one problem – and it was a significant one: they hardly ever looked like scoring.
There was only one shot on target in the first half, an early effort from Marco Asensio following a perfectly weighted through ball from Isco. A few more followed in the second period, but not enough to reflect the team’s overall control of the game, and unconvincing finishing – especially from Asensio – meant Madrid had to settle for a draw thanks to Benzema’s strike.
Perhaps it’s getting rather tedious to continually harp back to Cristiano Ronaldo, but the presence of a penalty-box predator like the Portugal superstar is exactly what this team is missing.
It doesn’t have to be ‘another’ Ronaldo, but Los Blancos are in desperate need of a player who wants to get in the box and fire in strikes on goal. This summer will be crucial.
BENZEMA TO THE RESCUE…AGAIN
The one positive to emerge from Ronaldo’s departure has been the opportunity it has afforded to Benzema to become more of a focal point in his team’s attack.
And the Frenchman has certainly delivered, with his equaliser in this encounter taking him to 27 goals in all competitions, giving him a chance to overhaul his career-best 32 in the title-winning 2011/12 campaign.
Benzema is in particularly rich form at the moment, netting five goals in his last four games and being directly responsible for six points during that period (a winner against Huesca, both goals in the 2-1 victory over Eibar and the leveller at Leganes). He also linked play superbly, creating chances for Asensio and Marcelo with a pair of beautiful touches.
Although he is now 31-years old, the Frenchman’s immediate future in the team looks secure, but just think how much he would benefit from the presence of a penalty box predator alongside him – somebody to finish off what he starts and provide another source of goals.
After Benzema’s tally of 18, the team’s second-highest scorer in the league is Gareth Bale with only eight and, returning to the point already made above, the need to give Benzema a decent strike partner is paramount.
LONG-BALL LEGANES SHATTER THE STEREOTYPES
There is a common misconception about La Liga among some football fans – especially those who never watch it – that the Spanish top flight is a boring procession of tippy-tappy teams who overplay the ball sideways and backwards through midfield and never take one pass to get the ball forward when ten will do.
Leganes are a shining example that the stereotype is wrong. Mauricio Pellegrino’s team are not pretty to watch.
They are not interested in clever passing triangles. They do not insist upon walking the ball into the net.
But they are highly effective, and outperforming all expectations by leaping into the fringes of the race for a place in next season’s Europa League.
Although it was exquisitely finished by Silva, the opening goal showed exactly what kind of team Leganes are: it came from a long throw from the right flank, flicked on at the near post, battled for inside the box and then laid back to the edge of the area for a shot on goal. Tony Pulis, eat your heart out.
A few weeks ago, Real Betis boss Quique Setien – the purist’s purist – decried the tactical approach of Leganes by saying they “only do four things.” But even Setien would acknowledge that Leganes do those things very well, and there is more than one way of winning a football match. Even in La Liga.
Real Madrid prospect Vinicius Junior admitted that the players get a little nervous around boss Zinedine Zidane at times.
The Brazilian also spoke in admiration of the Frenchman and about how he takes care of everything and ensures that the players need to focus only on their football.
“When a guy like that – who played at such a high level – is on the bench and says anything, you pay attention, don’t you?” Vinicius said to Esporte Espetacular, according to Marca.
“Sometimes we get a little nervous when we are going to speak to him.
“He does everything for you, so you only worry about playing football.”
Vinicius is confident that he will enjoy regular playing time under Zidane. The team is now preparing for next season and the manager is willing to provide everyone a chance to prove themselves.
“I know that Zidane gives chances to everyone,” Vinicius added.
“We are now preparing for next season.
“I am calm because I know that when I have recovered [from my injury], my chance [to impress] will appear.”