It’s not just goals that have been missing in the Spanish capital and, after Real Madrid’s impressive display against Espanyol, Ryan Hunn looks at whether Karim Benzema can become their main man.
Once. Only once before the weekend just gone had Real Madrid scored two first half goals in La Liga this season. They had only scored more than twice in a league game at all just three times - something they had already done before the clocks went back during the last campaign. On Sunday in Barcelona, Real Madrid did both, cruising to a 4-2 win against Espanyol at Cornellà-El Prat. And yet this routine victory merely highlighted just how disappointing the back-to-back-to-back Champions League holders have been this season.
Admittedly, it feels a little absurd to talk of a disappointing campaign whilst seeing the gold badge blazoned on the shirt - reserved exclusively for World Champions - that will be worn for at least the rest of this calendar year. It might be absurd to point this out after a game where Los Blancos scored three first half goals and cruised to a 4-2 win at away from home, inflicting a ninth defeat in ten games on Espanyol in the process. But the elements that secured this win, which saw them climb back to third in the league, will have to be on display more regularly if Madrid are to salvage a season that at one point threatened to become disastrous.
Goals have been so hard to come by this season that a Real Madrid player is yet to hit double figures in the league. The sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus cost Real Madrid goals that they are yet to replace, with no current player looking likely to come close to the Portuguese’s last season tally of 27. Karim Benzema has already bettered his tally for the entirety of last season, leading the club’s scoring with nine in the league, but continue down La Liga’s goal scorers list and you’ll eventually find the next Real Madrid player, Gareth Bale, who has five. We are still in the season that contained the longest goal drought in the club’s history.
However, it isn’t just the goals that are lacking at the Bernabéu: when Ronaldo to Juventus, they also lost the alpha of their front line. Sergio Ramos continues to be the alpha at the defensive end and, despite not quite hitting his incredible form of last year, Luka Modrić continues to be Madrid’s chief in midfield. Up front has been a different story, with neither Bale nor Benzema - or anyone else for that matter – stepping into the dominant role vacated by Ronaldo. Against Espanyol Benzema showed signs of being able to take on that role in the wake of Ronaldo’s departure.
Benzema was brilliant, scoring twice in arguably his best performance in a Real Madrid shirt. It was historic too, as the Frenchman became the sixth highest goal scorer in Real Madrid’s history. Lucas Vasquez heaped praise on his teammate after the game. “He is the best striker in the world,” Vasquez told reporters. “He works so hard, scores goals and offers this team so much.” But Vasquez wasn’t the only one singing Benzema’s praises, with head coach Santiago Solari also hailing the Frenchman. “Yes, I think he is one of the best no.9s in the world nowadays. When Benzema is on this form, this praise seems fitting, as does his place behind Ferenc Puskás, Santillana, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Raúl and Cristiano Ronaldo on Madrid’s all time scoring list.
If Los Blancos are to put any real pressure on Atléti and Barça at the top of the table, they are going to need this version of Karim Benzema. Despite still being five points behind Atléti and ten behind Barça, only Barça have won more points since Solari took charge. Question marks may remain in regards to Madrid’s creativity, and Solari has yet to resolve the issue with how to use Isco, but none of this may be an issue come the end of the season.
Key fixtures lie ahead that will show whether this is a corner Madrid have now turned. A Copa del Rey quarter final second leg against Girona midweek is followed by Aláves at home, a Madrid derby and a Champions League tie against Ajax, with El Clásico in early March. However, recent history shows that Madrid’s league form might not even matter. This is a side that finished last season third in the league, 17 points behind Barcelona, but won a third Champions League in a row.