John Aldridge has compared Real Madrid talisman Karim Benzema to a "bottle of Rioja" who has got better with age ahead of the Champions League final against Liverpool.

France striker Benzema has scored a staggering 44 goals in 45 appearances for Los Blancos this season.

The Madrid captain is the leading scorer in the 2021-22 Champions League, finding the back of the net 15 times in 11 matches – including back-to-back hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.

Benzema's penalty settled a pulsating semi-final second leg against Manchester City and the 34-year-old also helped himself to a brace in the first leg.

Former Liverpool striker Aldridge spoke of his admiration for the prolific Benzema ahead of Saturday's Champions League showdown at Stade de France.

He told Stats Perform: "I always thought that Benzema was a good player. But what he's done the last couple of years, and they've had the big players leave, he's become like a bottle of wine.

"He's matured very well. He's got better with age, which I did, because I was a late developer. I found the older I got, the more experience I got, the better I was.

"I played until I was nearly 40. He has a great football brain and all I can say is, he’s like a nice bottle of Rioja, red, that is. He's matured very, very well. And it's very expensive."

Aldridge stressed that the Reds must not allow 36-year-old midfield maestro Luka Modric to dictate the final in Paris.

"It's down the middle, we can hurt them in certain places," he said. "Vinicius [Junior] and Benzema, for me are our main threat.

"They have great players all over the pitch. In midfield, Modric, what a player, what a player he is, whatever age he is, I watched him against Man City, you let him run the show.

"And I've seen him run the show for Tottenham at Liverpool, one of the best appearances I've ever seen from an away player. Some years ago, we got beat, and he was unbelievable.

"So, you can't give him any room. You've got to watch the space in behind Trent [Alexander-Arnold], obviously where they'll capitalise with the pace of Vinicius.

"And Benzema, you can't give him any room in the box, they're the main threats. When you've got [Sadio] Mane, [Diogo] Jota, [Luis] Diaz and [Mohamed] Salah, they've got a little bit to think about as well."

Aldridge also hailed Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, who won the LaLiga title for the first time this season after leaving Everton for a second spell in the Spanish capital.

He said: "Apart from Everton? It's mad with Ancelotti, he went to Everton and walked away, and he got another crack at Madrid which to be quite honest, how that has happened is like, it's crazy isn't it?

"And he's been brilliant. You have to say he's very intelligent, he's a class act, he's been in these occasions quite a few times as we know. He has set the stall out, he's right up there with the best coaches and managers in the world. Absolutely."

Karim Benzema insists he does not feel "betrayed" by Kylian Mbappe's decision to stay with Paris Saint-Germain instead of joining him at Real Madrid.

After well over a year of intense speculation, Mbappe finally confirmed on Saturday that he had signed a new three-year contract at PSG.

It was a decision few saw coming given Madrid's apparent confidence the France international was going to join them on a free transfer at the end of June.

Mbappe's decision infuriated LaLiga chief Javier Tebas, while others associated more closely with Madrid were said to have been stunned.

An Instagram post by Benzema later the same day attracted particular attention, as he uploaded a photo of late rapper Tupac Shakur that was deemed to be veiled reference to betrayal.

According to Madrid-based newspaper Marca, which is generally regarded to have strong ties to Los Blancos, Benzema had been key in trying to persuade international team-mate Mbappe to join the club, hence why he might have felt betrayed.

But Benzema is adamant such stories are nonsense.

Speaking to Movistar Plus on Tuesday, Benzema said: "I'm going to tell you that we're going to play a Champions League final on Saturday. This is not the time to talk about those little things. I'd rather not talk.

"I'm not angry, I'm just telling you that I'm focused on the Champions League final, which is more important than listening to other things."

Asked if he felt "betrayed", Benzema continued: "Why? Everyone has to be focused on their things.

"Mbappe and other players have no reason to call me. Everyone decides their future. I'm calm here, preparing for Saturday's game. Each person does what he wants.

"There is no history of betrayal, or anything… Every month and a half I [post] photos of Tupac, who is my favourite.

"It's not a photo with a message; if I have a message I will see the person. Madrid is the best club in the world, but it was not a message."

Benzema did acknowledge, however, that the news was unexpected.

"I was surprised, like everyone else," he said. "He is a Paris player and we have a game on Saturday."

Both players are expected to be on international duty with France next month when Les Bleus begin their Nations League title defence.

Real Madrid have been likened to a cat with nine lives by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin after their dramatic run to the Champions League final.

The Spanish LaLiga winners came from 2-0 behind on aggregate with a stunning comeback against Paris Saint-Germain at the last-16 stage, then resisted a Chelsea fightback in the quarter-finals.

They topped those victories, however, with their recovery against Manchester City in the semi-finals, with Ceferin admitting he thought the Spanish giants' hopes were finally dead and buried.

An all-English final in Paris was looming when City led 5-3 on aggregate going into the 90th minute at the Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, only for a Rodrygo double and Benzema's penalty in extra time to sensationally turn the tie around.

The May 28 showpiece will now feature Madrid against Liverpool, both long-time titans of the competition, with Ceferin describing that match-up as "insanely interesting".

"Already in the semi-finals I doubted that Real could eliminate Manchester City," Ceferin said, "especially after the defeat in the first game."

City won 4-3 in Manchester and led 1-0 in Madrid through Riyad Mahrez's goal, before the late flurry from the hosts.

"They obviously have nine lives like cats," Ceferin said, in an interview with Slovenian news website 24ur.com.

The UEFA boss noted the experience in the Madrid ranks, yet he questioned the strength of Carlo Ancelotti's defence, describing it as "weak".

"But they have the miraculous Karim Benzema, for whom I have said many times that in my opinion he is one of the most underrated players in the history of football," Ceferin added.

"Luka Modric, the older he is, the better he is."

 

Benzema has scored a competition-high 15 goals for Madrid in the Champions League this season, in just 11 games. Those goals have come at a rate of one every 67.7 minutes. He is an obvious threat to Liverpool's hopes of winning a third cup competition this season, having already won the FA Cup and EFL Cup.

Ceferin believes both sides have their merits, with Madrid's experience punching against the relative youth of Liverpool.

"I wouldn't dare to predict the winner, as a rule I misjudge. It's impossible to predict," he said. "This will be an insanely interesting final."

Off the field, Ceferin says he has had no recent contact with Madrid senior officials, after the club were key players behind the failed push for a European Super League.

"The time will come when these things will be cleared up, but they will certainly not be on the pitch," Ceferin said.

Karim Benzema moved level with Raul as Real Madrid's second-highest all-time top goalscorer and Vinicius Junior scored a hat-trick as the LaLiga champions relegated Levante with a 6-0 hammering.

Ferland Mendy got Carlo Ancelotti's side, who were crowned champions a fortnight ago, on their way early on, before Benzema joined Madrid icon Raul on 323 goals soon after.

Rodrygo and Vinicius added further goals before the interval, with the latter completing his treble in the second half at the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday.

While the rout restored Madrid's 12-point advantage over Barcelona at the summit, it condemned Levante drop with two games to play.

Any hopes Levante had of causing an upset were dispelled in the 13th minute when Mendy powered into the penalty area and slotted past Daniel Cardenas.

Federico Valverde then steered a volley against the post, before Benzema doubled his side's advantage with a close-range header from Vinicius' cross after 19 minutes.

Rodrygo slid home Luka Modric's cross to make it three in the 34th minute, while Cardenas twice pushed Valverde drives onto the crossbar as Madrid dominated.

They made it four in the 45th minute, when Vinicius collected Modric's pass and curled past Cardenas from a tight angle.

Cardenas pawed away Modric's whipped effort and Vinicius saw an effort ruled out for offside after the interval. 

The Brazil international was not to be denied in the 68th minute, though, tapping into an empty net after Benzema had rounded Cardenas.

He had his hat-trick seven minutes from full-time courtesy of a cool finish from 10 yards out after breaking through Levante's dispirited backline. 

Real Madrid talisman Karim Benzema is "one of the most underrated players in history" according to UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin.

Benzema has produced several incredible displays to fire Real Madrid to their 17th European Cup/Champions League final, scoring hat-tricks in last-16 and quarter-final ties with Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea, before netting three goals across a 6-5 aggregate win over Manchester City in the semi-finals.

The 34-year-old has been touted for the Ballon d'Or after scoring 43 goals and providing 14 assists in all competitions for Los Blancos this term, with Carlo Ancelotti's team also wrapping up the LaLiga title last week.

The France international has scored 10 goals in the Champions League knockout stages, the joint-most recorded by a player in a single campaign, along with Cristiano Ronaldo in 2016-17, also for Madrid.

Speaking to AS, Ceferin rejected suggestions Madrid had been fortunate in the competition this season, hailing the contributions of Benzema and midfielder Luka Modric and labelling the former "awesome".

"For me, one of the most underrated players in history is Benzema. He is an amazing player. And they have Luka Modric, who the older he gets, the better he plays," Ceferin said.

"Now [Benzema] is becoming more and more recognized. He has always been in someone's shadow. 

"It's amazing how this footballer can score goals. He finds a way, even when it seems impossible to score. He is an awesome player.

"We will have to ask them [Madrid] how it is possible. They are an experienced team. You could say that they have been a bit lucky in some matches, but you can only be lucky in one, not all."

After scoring an extra-time penalty to send Los Blancos to the May 28 final at City's expense, Benzema has scored seven Champions League goals against English teams this season, the most by a player in a single campaign in the competition's history.

He will have the opportunity to build on that record when Ancelotti's men face Liverpool in the final in Paris, and Ceferin believes the removal of the away goals rule has contributed to this Champions League season being one of the most exhilarating in recent history.

"That's the Champions League. The biggest football promotion and the best sports competition in the world," he added. "And when you watch these games… it's amazing. 

"I am happy that we have changed the away goals rule. When I told some of my team-mates that, they told me that there would be more penalty shoot-outs. 

"But it is not true and that is how it has been seen. The matches, in my opinion, are more interesting.

"The clubs in the Champions League are the best and playing away is almost the same as playing at home. I'm looking forward to the final."

Former Real Madrid midfielder Guti has admitted his surprise at the form of Karim Benzema this season, labelling him "football in its purest state".

Benzema scored an extra-time penalty in Madrid's dramatic 3-1 second-leg win in their Champions League semi-final against Manchester City on Wednesday and is among the favourites for this year's Ballon d'Or.

The France striker has 43 goals and 14 assists in 43 games in all competitions this season, helping Los Blancos to the LaLiga title as well as the Champions League final, where they will play Liverpool.

Speaking to TMW, Guti – who played for Madrid between 1995 and 2010 – praised his former team-mate for replacing the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo, who left for Juventus in 2018.

"In his feet there is an incredible talent, but I did not expect this performance as a goalscorer," he said.

"He is giving a lot to a Real that, after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, needed goals. Benzema represents football in its purest state."

Real Madrid and Villarreal have it all to do when they host Manchester City and Liverpool respectively in the second legs of their Champions League semi-final ties in midweek.

Fresh off the back of winning a second LaLiga title in three seasons, Madrid are aiming to overturn a 4-3 deficit against City following last week's thrilling first leg in Manchester.

That was the joint-highest scoring semi-final first leg in the competition's history, along with Liverpool 5-2 Roma in 2017-18, and more drama awaits in the Spanish capital.

Villarreal face an even bigger task, meanwhile, as they trail Liverpool 2-0 through an unfortunate Pervis Estupinan own goal and a Sadio Mane strike at Anfield.

However, only once before have the Reds won both legs of a knockout stage tie against Spanish opposition in the Champions League or its former guise as the European Cup.

So will it be an all-English final in Paris on May 28, or can the LaLiga pair turn things around on home turf?

Ahead of the second legs, Stats Perform digs into some of the best Opta numbers around the two semi-final ties.


Villarreal v Liverpool

To put the size of Villarreal's task into some perspective, only once before – Liverpool versus Barcelona in 2019 – has a team overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit at this stage of the Champions League.

Villarreal are unbeaten at home in Champions League knockout ties, albeit having won just two of their seven such games. The bad news, though, is that across those seven matches, neither side has managed to score more than once on any occasion.

If they are to have any hope of advancing then Unai Emery's men need to display far more attacking impetus than was on show last week, having attempted only one shot and failed to hit the target at Anfield. The last team to fail to record a shot on target across two legs of a Champions League semi-final was Deportivo de La Coruna in 2003-04, against Jose Mourinho's Porto.

Should Liverpool see the job through, they will become only the fourth side to reach the final of the European Cup/ Champions League on 10 or more occasions after Real Madrid (16), Bayern Munich and Milan (both 11), with their current tally of nine the most of any English side.

Jurgen Klopp's side have been formidable on the road in Europe this season, scoring 15 goals and conceding five across their five away Champions League matches, all of which have ended in victory. Should they win on Tuesday, they will boast the longest 100 per cent away record by any team in a single European Cup or Champions League campaign.

After netting in the first leg it is likely that Mane will again be selected in Liverpool's star-studded front three. The Senegal international has scored 14 knockout-stage goals for the Reds in the Champions League, leaving him one short of Chelsea legend Frank Lampard's record for the most for an English club.

 


Real Madrid v Manchester City

The omens are good for City as they have progressed from nine of their previous 10 knockout ties in the Champions League after winning the first leg, the only exception being against Monaco at the last-16 stage in 2016-17 after squandering a 5-3 advantage to lose 6-6 on away goals.

Madrid have been eliminated from all five previous Champions League semi-finals in which they have lost the first leg, meanwhile, though they have advanced from two of their past three knockout ties when losing the first leg – against Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 quarter-finals and versus Paris Saint-Germain in this season's last 16.

Los Blancos, the competition's most successful side, have lost their past two Champions League games, though only once before have they lost three on the spin. Head coach Carlo Ancelotti, incidentally, has never lost three in a row with this his 178th match.

A draw would be enough to see City through, but they have won their last three matches against Madrid in the Champions League and could become the third side to win four in a row against them in UEFA's showpiece competition, the only previous sides to have done so being Ajax (between 1973 and 1995) and Bayern Munich (between 2000 and 2002).

City boss Pep Guardiola has had his fair share of battles with Madrid down the years, not least in the Champions League. The Catalan coach has won four matches against Los Blancos in the competition – only Ottmar Hitzfeld (seven) has won more – with half of those wins coming at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Karim Benzema has rescued Madrid a number of times in Europe this season, the Frenchman having netted nine times in the knockout stage alone. Only former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo (10) has ever scored more in a single season, while Benzema could become the fourth player to score in both legs of the quarter-finals and semi-finals in a single season after Fernando Morientes (2003-04), Neymar (2014-15) and Edin Dzeko (2017-18). 

While Benzema has rightly received plenty of plaudits, strike partner Vinicius Junior has himself played a huge part in Madrid's charge for a record-extending 14th European Cup. The 28 open-play chances created by the Brazil international is the most of any player in the Champions League since Dusan Tadic (36) in 2018-19.

Despite wrapping up their 35th LaLiga title and retaining a chance of winning the Champions League this term, Real Madrid find themselves at something of a crossroads.

The individual brilliance of Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior may have fired Los Blancos to a dominant triumph in LaLiga, but attention will soon turn to Madrid's attempts to defend the title for the first time since 2007-08.

With the potential arrival of a true global superstar and one of the Premier League's best defenders, as well as the matter of refreshing a brilliant but ageing midfield, it promises to be an interesting few months at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Here, Stats Perform analyses what Carlo Ancelotti's men could do to fend off the potential challenge of an improved Barcelona next season.

 

The Mbappe conundrum: How would the superstar fit in?

For months, if not years, Real Madrid's plans for 2022 seem to have revolved around one name: Kylian Mbappe.

While recent reports have suggested the 23-year-old could yet remain at the Parc des Princes, a move for the talismanic attacker – who will be a free agent in June – cannot yet be ruled out.

Having scored 35 goals and provided 19 assists in 43 appearances in all competitions for Paris Saint-Germain, Mbappe would clearly be an asset to any team in European football, but the question remains as to how Mbappe will complement another free-scoring Frenchman in the Spanish capital.

Benzema has become just the fifth Madrid player in history to score 40+ goals in a single season for the club (after Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez), and is being touted for the Ballon d'Or after driving Madrid's Champions League run. Benzema has scored 14 goals in 10 European appearances this term, averaging a goal every 65.1 minutes in a stunning campaign.

Mbappe and Benzema are no strangers to playing together, but the PSG forward failed to score and only provided one assist when doing so during France's disappointing Euro 2020 campaign. The Madrid man, meanwhile, finished just one goal short of the golden boot after netting four times.

Matters are complicated further when taking into account the form of Vinicius, who has formed a lethal partnership with Benzema this season, registering 33 goal involvements of his own in all competitions (18 goals, 15 assists), and Mbappe's preference to play from the left could infringe on Vinicius. 

However, Mbappe's development into a more well-rounded attacking talent should ensure he at least provides a threat, whichever flank he starts from. 

As well as improving on his 11 assists from last season, Mbappe has completed more dribbles (138) at a higher success rate (50.74 per cent) than Vinicius this term (130, 41.4 per cent), and could join him in playing a more creative role supporting Benzema.

Upgrading in defence: The arrival of Antonio Rudiger

Having announced his intention to leave Chelsea at the end of his contract, Antonio Rudiger is another player strongly linked with a move to the Bernabeu ahead of next season.

The German defender has been one of the Blues' outstanding players under Thomas Tuchel, starring in their Champions League triumph last year and enjoying another fine campaign this season.

Rudiger has been a key component in the Premier League's third-best defence this season, with Chelsea keeping 15 clean sheets and conceding just 28 goals despite falling out of title contention after a promising start.

The 29-year-old appears to be an upgrade on Madrid's current defensive options after last year's departures of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, offering more physicality than David Alaba and greater defensive steel than Eder Militao, a partnership that was frequently exposed by Manchester City recently.

Rudiger would also offer a threat at the other end of the pitch, with his three league goals this season bettered by just one other Premier League centre-back (Jan Bednarek, four), and his ability to step out of defence was on display when he scored a 39-yard stunner against Brentford in early April – Chelsea's longest-range Premier League goal since January 2007

However, Rudiger has been accustomed to playing in a back three at Chelsea and would be most likely to play as a right-sided centre-back in a back four for Madrid, unless Ancelotti opts to shift Alaba to left-back.

Rudiger would likely have to curb his attacking enthusiasm if paired with the naturally forward-thinking Alaba, but he appears a smart choice to further solidify a defence that has been the second-strongest in LaLiga this term (only Sevilla have conceded fewer goals).

The case for Camavinga: Time to look to the future?

The midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will go down in Madrid history: they started together in three consecutive Champions League final wins between 2016 and 2018, with the Croatian also starring in 2014's victory.

Nobody can question their quality or longevity. All three have made at least 35 starts this season, while Modric in particular has produced several sumptuous contributions in big games that have helped him to an assist haul of nine, six more than any other Madrid midfielder.

 

However, given they occasionally appear to lack a certain dynamism when out of possession, could Madrid benefit from some extra mobility in the engine room?

The signing of Eduardo Camavinga, who has made 35 appearances this term, was clearly made with such a move in mind, but the French youngster has only started 14 times in all competitions and would benefit from more playing time next season as he looks to improve his all-round game.

However, neither Camavinga nor Federico Valverde possess the kind of metronomic abilities of Modric or Kroos, and the younger pair also average fewer passes into the final third per 90 minutes than their more experienced peers (6.25 and 6.1, respectively).

As such, with the rumoured arrivals of Mbappe and Rudiger involving no transfer fees, Madrid could yet benefit from dipping into the market to acquire another young, progressive midfielder in a move that might also help to prolong the excellence of Modric and Kroos.

Real Madrid are LaLiga champions for the second time in three seasons – and a 35th time overall – after beating Espanyol 4-0 on Saturday to clinch top spot.

Los Blancos have led the way pretty much throughout a campaign that has seen erstwhile champions Atletico Madrid and a Lionel Messi-less Barcelona struggle for consistency.

Indeed, Sevilla proved Los Blancos' biggest threat for large parts of this season, but Carlo Ancelotti's men never truly looked in danger of relinquishing their grip on another title.

Madrid's latest triumph came in Ancelotti's first season back at the club, with the Italian becoming the first head coach to win each of Europe's top five leagues.

While Ancelotti deserves plenty of credit, the title stroll would not have been possible if not for Karim Benzema and Thibaut Courtois at opposite ends of the pitch.

Here, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind Madrid's latest title romp, which they could still yet add to with the Champions League in the coming weeks.

 

Madrid masterclass

Not only have Madrid won more European Cups than any side, their 35th LaLiga crown sees them overtake Juventus for the most titles among the top five European leagues.

Their two titles in three seasons, with the other coming under Zinedine Zidane in 2019-10, is as many as they won in the previous 11 campaigns.

Ancelotti's men have done so in style, too, having clinched top spot with four matchdays left, surpassing 2007-08 (three matchdays) for their earliest title win this century.

 

Carlo completes the set

Ancelotti won five trophies during his previous spell in charge of Madrid but the LaLiga title eluded him.

However, the 62-year-old can now lay claim to having won the title in Italy, England, France, Germany and indeed Spain – the first head coach to have ever achieved a sweep.

He is also the oldest coach to have won the Spanish top flight, some two years more senior than Fabio Capello was when also tasting success with Madrid in 2006-07.

Incidentally, Ancelotti and Capello are the only two Italian coaches to have reigned in Spain, with the latter having done so twice.

 

Karim the Dream

Benzema has led the way for Madrid with this his fourth LaLiga conquest, adding to the titles won in 2012, 2017 and 2020.

The France international has scored 26 goals in 30 league games this season, making this his most prolific campaign across his 13 years in Spain's top flight.

Not only does Benzema lead the LaLiga scoring charts, his 11 assists are also level with Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele as the most in the division.

Just to further underline the striker's importance this season, with 37 direct goal involvements he has played a part in 51 per cent of Los Blancos' 73 league goals.

Courtois a calming presence

For all of Benzema's goals, Madrid have so often called upon goalkeeper Courtois to rescue them this campaign.

The former Chelsea stopper has conceded 29 goals across 34 matches, keeping 14 clean sheets in the process.

Real Sociedad's Alex Remiro (18) can hold claim to keeping more shutouts, but a separate metric shows just how good Courtois has been in 2021-22.

The 29 goals Courtois has conceded have come from 33.4 expected goals on target conceded, meaning he has prevented 4.4 goals based on the quality of his shot-stopping.

To put that in some perspective, no goalkeeper in LaLiga has prevented more goals this season, while only five others across Europe's top five leagues have prevented more.

Benzema and Vinicius Junior may get most of the plaudits, but Courtois' influence has undoubtedly been significant.

 

After a third successive Champions League title, Cristiano Ronaldo's departure for Juventus was meant to signal the end for a team that had scaled the heights of European football.

The annus horribilis of the 2018-19 season seemed to reaffirm such sentiment, but with Real Madrid now claiming a second LaLiga title and sitting another hair's breadth from the Champions League final since that departure, it seems even more irrational in hindsight.

How have Madrid been able to sustain their level among the best in European football and keep fighting for silverware on multiple fronts despite such a seemingly transformative absence? How have they won this season's LaLiga title with such ease?

Despite a severely weakened Barcelona and a supposed closing of the gap to the rest, Madrid can still reach 90 points this season.

 

In reality, their three successive Champions League triumphs during Zinedine Zidane's first spell in charge were largely due to the ideal balance of their midfield, comprising of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric.

To use but one example, bring into perspective how could they nullify Liverpool's ability to press in both the 2017-18 final and then again in the 2020-21 quarter-final over two legs, with Zidane in charge for a second time.

It bears repeating. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp – a great pressing team that squeezes the opposition into submission, consistently forces errors and is tactically transforming football before our eyes – were eventually rendered inert on multiple occasions.

At Madrid's core though, the collective did and continues to flourish via the creative and incorporative link between Modric and Karim Benzema, both with and without the ball. In a burgeoning era of automation and systems, they are the system.

 

The thing that maximises the duo's technical proficiency is their ability to improvise and embrace risk in the exploitation of space. If automation was football's equivalent to the legend of developing a pen in space, the link between Modric and Benzema is the comparative pencil – just as effective, far more practical.

Granted, that reliance on them creates volatility. When the two are on the pitch, they give Los Blancos a distinct flexibility. When they're not together, the collective is without a reference point and their relationship between defence and attack is compromised – as it was in their thumping in El Clasico in March or even going back to the 2016-17 season and their Copa del Rey elimination in the quarter-final over two legs to Celta Vigo.

 

Viewing Madrid through this prism makes a lot of other aspects relating to them clearer – the ability to feasibly play Lucas Vazquez at right-back in Dani Carvajal's absence, the varying shifts in form from the likes of Vinicius Junior and Kroos this season, or the differing fates of Eduardo Camavinga and Martin Odegaard upon attempting to integrate them into the midfield.

On that latter point, within this context, Camavinga earning more scope at Kroos' expense instead of Modric does not become much of a surprise – because while Benzema has elite comparisons in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane in terms of profile, Modric has always been one of a kind.

Midfielders as complete as Modric, possessing the effortless ability to blur the line between the elegant and the practical, simply did not exist before him – at least as a deep-lying player and not deployed higher up the pitch.

At the incomprehensible age of 36, the Croatia international is still unique, still elite. Ahead of Saturday's match, he led Madrid's midfielders in all competitions this season for chances created in open play per 90 minutes (1.1), expected assists (0.17) and trailed only Camavinga (1.5) for dribbles completed (1.4).

Only Kroos (12.5) bettered Modric (9.5) for passes into the final third per 90 in all competitions, but the German's passing represents an increasingly singular role in Madrid's midfield. He is a world-class distributor, but it is maximised as a result of the spaces that Benzema and Modric create.

No player is more relevant in this regard, however, than Vinicius. His own progression has also accelerated upon that basis. Benzema and Modric's ability to collapse opposition defences leaves the opposition full-back on Vinicius' side isolated, and the 21-year-old can be destructive when he has momentum to dribble.

This all matters because it creates a cumulative impact on how Madrid score their goals. In all competitions ahead of Saturday's game, Vinicius topped the team for dribbles completed per 90 (3.0), chances created from open play (2.3) and expected assists (0.23). 

This goes some way to explaining Benzema's dramatic increase in rate of goal scoring, especially comparing 25 goals in 29 league appearances heading into the weekend to his tally of five LaLiga goals in 2017-18.

Much like Modric, 34-year-old Benzema has the capacity to be flexible as that central striker, and to do what the game requires of him in any given moment. 

 

The reference point Benzema and Modric provide has been the primary dynamic in this season's title win – Carlo Ancelotti's first LaLiga success. They can win games in an instant but collectively, the consequent ability to manage games and keep applying pressure from either winning or losing positions, on the back of both territorial and positional superiority, has been critical.

Ultimately, intelligent footballers gravitate towards one another and it is one of most profound and beautiful aspects of the sport. While Madrid will eventually go on without Benzema and Modric, their interaction and how it has built a worthy title winner this season has only underlined that.

Vinicius Junior says "there are no words" to describe Karim Benzema's form as he backed his Real Madrid team-mate to win this year's Ballon d'Or.

Benzema, on his 600th appearance for Madrid, scored twice in Tuesday's 4-3 loss to Manchester City in their Champions League semi-final first leg at the Etihad Stadium.

The France international's first was a difficult twisting finish to drag Madrid back in the game at 2-0 down and the second a calm Panenka penalty late on to leave the tie well poised.

He now has 41 goals in as many games for Los Blancos this season, a tally bettered only by Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (48 in 43) across Europe's top five leagues.

The 34-year-old is the fifth Madrid player to score over 40 goals in a single season, after Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez.

Benzema also leads the scoring charts in the Champions League this term with 14, one more than Lewandowski, whose Bayern side were eliminated by Villarreal at the quarter-final stage.

Having finished behind Lionel Messi, Lewandowski and Jorginho in last year's Ballon d'Or, Vinicius insists Benzema should land the 2022 award.

"There are no words that can describe how Benzema is playing," Vinicius said. "He deserves the Ballon d'Or.

"I hope my brother Benzema ends up winning LaLiga, the Champions League and Ballon d'Or."

Benzema scored a hat-trick in the second leg of the last-16 win over Paris Saint-Germain and another treble in the first leg of the quarter-final victory against Chelsea.

His nine goals in the knockout stages has been bettered only once in a single Champions League campaign – Ronaldo scoring 10 in the 2016-17 edition.

Vinicius is not alone in backing Benzema to win the Ballon d'Or, with former team-mate Mesut Ozil tweeting on Tuesday: "Give my boy Benzi the Ballon D'Or."

Ex-Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand agreed with that assessment, quoting the tweet and adding the word "Facts".

That post by Ferdinand was liked by Benzema, whose prospects of being crowned the world's best player could be bolstered by helping France to World Cup glory in December.

Rather than bask in his glorious form, however, the prolific striker accepts his side have a lot of work to do if they are to advance any further in this season's competition.

"A defeat is never good, but we are excited about this Champions League and the important thing is we never give up," he told Movistar+. 

"Now we have to go to the Bernabeu and we need the fans like never before to do something magical, which is to win.

"We entered the game without confidence, and that's what happens with an opponent like Manchester City. In this game a little bit of everything was missing."

Carlo Ancelotti appeared to feign ignorance when asked about reports that Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger is set to sign for Real Madrid. 

Thomas Tuchel revealed at the weekend that Rudiger had informed him of his desire to leave Stamford Bridge when his contract expires at the end of the season. 

The Germany international will reportedly finalise a deal to join Madrid this week. 

Asked about Rudiger by beIN SPORTS after Madrid's 4-3 Champions League semi-final defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday, Ancelotti replied with a smile: "Toni? Who is this? 

"He's a Chelsea player until... He's still a Chelsea player and I cannot say anything about this." 

Ancelotti highlighted Madrid's defending as a key factor in their loss to City. 

Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus found the back of the net inside 11 minutes at the Etihad Stadium – the earliest Madrid have conceded twice in a single Champions League game. 

Karim Benzema pulled one back on his 600th appearance for the club and Vinicius Junior found the back of the net after Phil Foden nodded in a cross from Fernandinho in the second half. 

Bernardo Silva restored City's two-goal cushion before Benzema gave Madrid a sliver of additional hope with an audacious Panenka following a handball in the box by Aymeric Laporte. 

"You cannot cover a position with four defenders, You have to help with a midfielder," said Ancelotti. 

"There were losses in individual duels, so we have to be more attentive. With the ball, we had opportunities. We suffered a bit without it, though. But we have to have confidence. 

"We came out of the first leg with a result that isn't good, because we've conceded four goals and not defended well. 

"We hurt City with the ball, but what we have to do is defend better. The result can change in the second leg. They're a very strong team – they showed it tonight – but we competed. Defending better is the key to reaching the final." 

Madrid will be crowned LaLiga champions if they get a point at Espanyol on Saturday, but Ancelotti has no intention of denying the players a chance to celebrate ahead of Wednesday's return game against City at the Santiago Bernabeu. 

"If we are able to win the league, of course we'll celebrate. And it will help us for Wednesday's game," he added. 

Karim Benzema believes Real Madrid need another special night at the Santiago Bernabeu to progress to the Champions League final following their 4-3 loss to Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola's side were 2-0 up inside 11 minutes at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday as a thrilling semi-final first leg got off to a flying start. 

Benzema's double – only his Panenka in the 82nd minute matching the degree of difficulty from a finish around body in the 33rd – ultimately helped Real Madrid limit the damage.

The 34-year-old called upon his club's fans to help them get to May's final in Paris.

"There are 90 minutes at the Bernabeu for the fans to make a difference again," Benzema told Movistar+. "We leave here with our heads held high to play a good game in the return leg. The fans leave proud.

"We have to keep our heads calm and see what we have to do to improve, a little of everything and especially at the beginning of games."

Benzema's brace against the Premier League leaders made him the fifth player in the Madrid's history to score over 40 goals in a single season, after Cristian Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez.

City were dominant against a Madrid side who badly missed Casemiro at the base of midfield, however, with Toni Kroos' defensive vulnerability a key factor in three of City's goals.

As has been the case during the knockout stage this season, in a game certainly not short on drama, Carlo Ancelotti's side managed to simply find a way to stay alive with a result that defied logic.

"A defeat is never good, but we are excited about this Champions League and the important thing is we never give up," Benzema said. "Now we have to go to the Bernabeu and we need the fans like never before to do something magical, which is to win.

"We entered the game without confidence, and that's what happens with an opponent like Manchester City. In this game a little bit of everything was missing."

On April 26, 2016, Manchester City and Real Madrid played out a tepid 0-0 draw in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final at the Etihad Stadium. 

Back at the same ground, in the same round of the same competition six years later, they produced a spectacle that had the contrast cranked up to the maximum.

It was the joint-highest scoring semi-final in the competition's history, and it was a story that twisted and turned from the first minute until the last.

But the opening chapter reached its conclusion with City holding a 4-3 advantage after an enthralling 90 minutes.

A start for the history books 

City pressed Madrid high from the off and it was shortly after regaining possession in the final third that Kevin De Bruyne made a phenomenal dart into the box to head home Riyad Mahrez's pinpoint delivery. 

There were just 95 seconds on the clock, making it the quickest goal in Champions League semi-final history. The previous mark was 2 minutes 44 seconds, which was set by Bayern Munich's Joshua Kimmich against Madrid in May 2018. 

It did not stop there, though. De Bruyne picked out Gabriel Jesus, who, after a somewhat fortuitous first touch, guided a cool finish beyond Thibaut Courtois to make it 2-0. 

Madrid had never before conceded twice in the first 11 minutes of a Champions League match and it looked like they could be seriously up against it with Mahrez, Phil Foden and Oleksandr Zinchenko all going close. 

Benzema brings it back 

It has already been the best season of Karim Benzema's career and he showed just how important he has become to Madrid in his 600th appearance for the club – the most by a non-Spanish player. 

He got in front of Zinchenko to steer home a brilliant volley from the edge of the box in the 33rd minute for his 40th goal of the season. The Frenchman now belongs to an exclusive club of just five players to hit that mark in a single campaign for Los Blancos, joining Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez. 

No let-up 

Madrid lost their best defender in David Alaba at half-time and the momentum they had built before the break quickly dissipated. 

Los Blancos concede an average of five more shots per game when Alaba does not feature and City had already had four efforts on goal – two of which came when Mahrez hit the post and Foden saw his goal-bound follow-up blocked by Dani Carvajal – before restoring their two-goal cushion through Foden in the 53rd minute. 

Makeshift right-back Fernandinho, who replaced the injured John Stones in the first half, set up Foden with an excellent cross but his defending belied his years of experience just two minutes later. Vinicius Junior got the better of his fellow Brazilian with a clever dummy by the halfway line, and no one could catch him before he tucked the ball into the bottom-right corner. 

It was the first time two players aged 21 or younger had scored in the same Champions League semi-final match.  

Don't look away

The drama was far from over, though. Bernardo Silva capitalised when referee Istvan Kovacs wisely played the advantage following Toni Kroos' challenge on Zinchenko by slamming the ball into the top-left corner in the 74th minute.

City consequently became the first English side to score four against Madrid in the Champions League since Liverpool in March 2009. It would have been five had Mahrez been able to add a finish to his coruscating run.

But Aymeric Laporte inexplicably handling a cross enabled Benzema to score his ninth goal of the knockout stages – a Panenka from the penalty spot moving him one adrift of Ronaldo's record (10) from Madrid's triumphant 2016-17 campaign. The Portugal captain (13) is also the only player to have scored more Champions League semi-final goals than Benzema's seven.

Madrid were unable to stop Pep Guardiola claiming a 12th win in his 20 meetings with them across his entire coaching career, though. The Catalan's record in the semi-final has been met with a lot of questions, but he has never been eliminated after winning a first leg at this stage.

He will hope to get the job done at the Santiago Bernabeu and get a chance at redemption after last season's final defeat to Chelsea.

Manchester City have the advantage in the Champions League semi-finals after edging out Real Madrid 4-3 in a thrilling first leg at the Etihad Stadium.

Pep Guardiola's side made a stunning start, striking twice in the opening 11 minutes through Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus.

The recently crowned LaLiga champions responded with Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior sandwiching Phil Foden's header.

The hosts hit back through Bernardo Silva's stellar strike, but Benzema's nonchalant late penalty cut the gap to a single goal ahead of the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu next Wednesday.

City made a flying start and took the lead courtesy of the quickest goal scored in a Champions League semi-final.

Indeed, just 94 seconds were on the clock when De Bruyne – the hero against Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals – headed home from Riyad Mahrez's delicious cross.

De Bruyne turned provider as the hosts doubled their advantage nine minutes later; his cross ricocheting kindly for Jesus to tuck away.

Mahrez and Phil Foden squandered chances to widen the margin before Madrid pulled one back as Benzema brilliantly volleyed home from Ferland Mendy's centre.

City regained their two-goal buffer within eight minutes of the restart, Foden ghosting in to head home Fernandinho's cross.

Madrid responded almost immediately as Vinicius raced down the left flank from inside his own half, before slotting past Ederson.

City regained control in the 73rd minute. Referee Istvan Kovacs played a brilliant advantage after Oleksandr Zinchenko was felled by Toni Kroos, enabling Silva to fire past a perplexed Thibaut Courtois.

But Los Blancos had the final word courtesy of Benzema's Panenka-style penalty after Aymeric Laporte handled in the box.

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