Karim Benzema plundered 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 – who was also culpable for the second – 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 talking points from Santiago Bernabeu:
BENZEMA IS HEAD BOY
Madrid knew by early October that this was not going to be a vintage campaign.
From these ashes, however, a maligned figure is now on course to experience the greatest campaign of his decade in royal white.
Benzema was unplayable in Sunday’s devastating second half. Expert movement stretched a lead as the player with the most headed goals in Europe’s top-five leagues, while his renewed confidence was displayed by a deft chip to make it eight goals in six fixtures – of which four have been victories – since countryman Zidane’s welcome return to the sidelines last month.
The centre forward now sits on a commendable 30 strikes in 50 run-outs this term. Only 2011/12’s record-breaking run to the La Liga crown earned better figures – 32 goals in 52 matches.
A move away from inverted wingers has helped, meaning the ex-Lyon star has often been the beneficiary of more traditional crossing. Whether this remains after the return of Brazilian flyer Vinicius Junior from injury and expected summer arrival of Chelsea maestro Eden Hazard will be interesting to see.
The iconic Cristiano Ronaldo’s vacation of centre stage has, undoubtedly, hurt Madrid in a trophyless 2018/19. Yet Benzema has gone from a figure of derision to a key pillar of a – hopefully – brighter future.
11 - Real Madrid's Karim Benzema has scored 11 goals against Athletic in LaLiga, more than against any other opponent. Favourite. pic.twitter.com/3Qe8v0SoUv— OptaJose (@OptaJose) April 21, 2019
VALLEJO TAKES HIS CHANCE
Madrid supporters could be forgiven for forgetting Vallejo existed.
A combination of draining injury, intense competition for places and the sense of unfulfilled potential meant there was a sense of surprise when just a third start of 2018/19 – and a first La Liga still in almost a year – was awarded to the 22-year-old centre-back.
The message – oft repeated – from Zidane is that these final, meandering months of a trying campaign are not meaningless. This statement was heeded by Vallejo on Sunday afternoon.
Few defenders can go step to step with the jet-heeled Inaki Williams. Well, his former Spain Under-21 team-mate managed to do just this in the build-up to Benzema’s breakthrough.
His sliding interception of Inigo Cordoba’s centre both denied Williams a tap-in and sparked the rapier counter that ended with the hosts going ahead.
A blanket was cast over the in-form Basque throughout, who came with five goals and one assists from his last five fixtures. He produced no attempts on goal, a 44-per-cent pass accuracy and two dribbles at the Bernabeu.
Vallejo led the way with three interceptions. A pass accuracy of 90.2 per cent was the third best of any Madrid starter.
With skipper Sergio Ramos not likely to be rushed back from a calf injury, further chances may follow in the coming weeks. Could a place on the 2019/20 roster still be secured – even with Brazil’s Eder Militao on the way – by the patient defender?
1-0 Madrid. Benzema [again] with header from Asensio cross - just moments after Vallejo denied Williams at other end.— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) April 21, 2019
BILBAO’S TRAVELLING BLUES
Gaizka Garitano’s troops looked to have performed a textbook Bilbao spoiling job in a disjointed first half.
This hard work, however, would come undone in regretful circumstance. Shot stopper Herrerin’s positioning was amateurish for goals two and three, while the visiting centre-backs lost concentration to gift Benzema the critical opener.
This followed a first half of nine fouls to Madrid’s 11, plus precious few opportunities.
Garitano will not be judged on days like this. His points per match is more than doubled predecessor Eduardo Berizzo’s (1.95/0.93) and the 43-year-old has turned a relegation battle into a push for the Europa League.
Where this charge has come unstuck, however, is on the road. Bilbao have lost four of their last six away from San Mames, which doesn’t help their Europa League hunt – three points behind sixth-placed Valencia.
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