Lionel Messi has found an unlikely ally in Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who believes those criticising the Argentinian's form at Paris Saint-Germain know nothing about football.

Messi joined PSG on a shock free transfer from Barcelona in August after the Blaugrana came to the realisation they simply could not afford to pay his wages in line with their reduced salary cap.

The move was seen as another big step for PSG in their quest to finally win the Champions League, as he was joining a team that already boasted Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in attack.

But Messi is yet to truly take off in Paris. While his haul of five goals in as many Champions League games is a good return, in Ligue 1 it has been a different story, netting just once in 11 appearances.

Unless he has an incredible second half to the season, Messi will fall well short of the 38 goals he scored across all competitions for Barca last term.

As for his creativity, Messi ranks third in the PSG squad for chances created (32) and his assists total of four is rather less than many would expect of him, particularly when Mbappe has 12 to his name.

But there have been extenuating circumstances given he did not have much of a pre-season, he has suffered with injuries and illness, and he is settling into new surroundings for the first time in his senior career.

As such, Benzema feels criticism of Messi – who could make his first appearance of 2022 on Sunday after a bout of coronavirus – is unfair.

Asked if Messi will be a success at PSG, Benzema told TF1: "How won't he succeed?

"It is just a period of adaptation, because he is not scoring a lot of goals. But watch what he does on the pitch.

"In any case you can't criticise a player like that. In fact, he who criticises Messi, knows nothing about football."

Messi claimed his record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or last year, an award that many had tipped Benzema to win over the course of the year.

Ultimately the Frenchman finished fourth in the running, also behind Robert Lewandowski and Jorginho, which was seemingly a source of frustration for him.

Winning the prize remains a goal of Benzema's, though he does not think he could have done any more than he did over 2021.

"Fourth, third or second is the same as 30th," he said. "The main thing is to win it.

"I was told that I hadn't won enough trophies, but I couldn't do more. It remains a goal and each season I will try to do better than what I did last season."

Everything points to the 34-year-old being in contention again at the end of 2022 as he sits atop LaLiga's goalscoring chart with 17, five more than anyone else in the division.

That haul has helped him to 303 goals for Madrid, which leaves Benzema just five behind club great Alfredo Di Stefano in third, while Raul (323) is not much further ahead in second – Cristiano Ronaldo (450) is way out in front.

Benzema never expected to get anywhere near Di Stefano's haul, which makes the achievement even more satisfying.

"It's a source of pride but I want to continue," Benzema added. "When I arrived, I saw [Di Stefano's record] so far away.

"I did not see these records as an objective, but today to be close to these legends is exceptional.

"When we arrive at Madrid, we don't tell ourselves that we will stay 10 or 15 years, we just want to win titles."

Real Madrid's squad is already packed with a magnitude of talent – and it could become even stronger should Erling Haaland arrive from Borussia Dortmund later this year.

Haaland has scored 78 goals in his two years with Dortmund – only Robert Lewandowski (107) has more in Europe's top five leagues – and would be a major coup for Madrid.

But while the Spanish giants remain confident of bringing in the in-demand striker from Dortmund, it could have a negative knock-on effect.


TOP STORY - HAALAND IN, BENZEMA OUT?

Karim Benzema is a much-loved figure at the Santiago Bernabeu and is enjoying another impressive campaign, but El Nacional claims that Madrid risk losing the Frenchman.

The report suggests that Benzema does not like the fact that president Florentino Perez is so fixated on bringing in a new player to lead Los Blancos' attack from next season.

While the 34-year is not currently seeking an exit, that could change should Madrid reach a pre-contract agreement with Haaland in the coming weeks, as has been suggested.

Benzema would not feel the need to move on should Kylian Mbappe join, though, as he considers that case to be different given the PSG striker is set to become a free agent.


ROUND-UP

Barcelona accept that it is increasingly likely Ousmane Dembele will leave Camp Nou as a free agent at the end of the season. According to Sport, Manchester United and Juventus have held talks with the player's camp, while Chelsea and Bayern Munich have an outside shot of signing the forward.

Arsenal have made their first move to sign Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina, with Corriere Della Sera reporting that the Gunners have tabled an offer of £50million (€60m) plus Lucas Torreira, who is currently on loan with the Serie A side.

Chelsea are interested in signing Layvin Kurzawa on loan as they look to bolster their full-back ranks. However, Fabrizio Romano claims that the Blues have not yet officially opened talks with PSG.

– Calciomercato reports that Man Utd forward Anthony Martial has emerged as a January target for Juventus. The France international has struggled for games this season and has openly admitted he wants to find a new club this month.

Everton are on the lookout for a new manager after parting company with Rafael Benitez on Sunday and hope to make a swift appointment. According to ESPN, former boss Roberto Martinez – now in charge of the Belgium national team – is the leading candidate to take over.

Newcastle United have already brought in Kieran Trippier and Chris Wood this window, but The Telegraph reports that they have been knocked back in their bid to bring in Donny van de Beek on loan. The Man Utd midfielder is said to have been put off by the Magpies' position in the Premier League.

Real Madrid secured the first trophy of Carlo Ancelotti's second spell as head coach by strolling to a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de Espana final.

Luka Modric and Karim Benzema scored as the LaLiga leaders proved far too strong for Athletic, who beat Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals on Thursday.

Benzema's goal was a second-half penalty and took him to 18 career goals against Athletic. They are the team against whom he has scored the most goals, and he was a threat throughout this one-sided game.

Even when Athletic were awarded a late spot-kick themselves, with Eder Militao sent off for handling Raul Garcia's header, they could not take advantage. Garcia's penalty carried plenty of punch, but Thibaut Courtois saved with his legs.

Ancelotti was a Champions League winner during his first stint with Madrid, and the experienced Italian will hope this success in Riyadh proves to be the first of many trophies second time around.

Madrid had a string of early half-chances, with Benzema, Toni Kroos and Modric among those who could not capitalise.

Casemiro then threatened twice in quick succession, forcing Unai Simon to tip an ambitious long-range strike wide for a corner, before a looping header from the midfielder was touched over the bar by the goalkeeper.

Modric made the breakthrough in the 38th minute. Rodrygo dribbled into the Athletic penalty area from the right flank before laying off the ball sensibly to his veteran team-mate, and from 17 yards the Croatian swept an elegant shot high into the right corner.

Madrid were awarded a penalty after a VAR check in the 51st minute when Benzema's shot struck Yeray Alvarez on the arm. Benzema powered the spot-kick into the left corner and Madrid looked home and hosed, having barely faced any pressure from Athletic, who won this competition last year.

The 89th-minute penalty could have made for a nervy finish, but Courtois came to Madrid's rescue.

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has said he is "very excited" to be leading Los Blancos into another final ahead of Sunday's Supercopa de Espana clash with Athletic Bilbao in Saudi Arabia.

The LaLiga leaders progressed after a hard-fought 3-2 win against Barcelona on Wednesday, with substitute Federico Valverde hitting an extra-time winner.

Athletic overcame Atletico Madrid 2-1 in the other semi-final on Thursday, and Ancelotti has admitted he will have to change his tactics for Marcelino's men on Sunday.

"I'm extremely happy to be experiencing this period, I'm very excited," he told reporters in a news conference. 

"Being back in a final again is special and even more so when it's at the helm of Real Madrid. This team is used to these types of games and these moments."

The two teams played each other twice in December in LaLiga, with Madrid emerging victorious on both occasions, 1-0 at the Bernabeu and 2-1 at San Mames.

"We have to analyse the opposition," Ancelotti added. "We know each other very well because we have played twice in a month, once in Madrid and once in Bilbao. It's going to be a very hard-fought match, just like the others were.

"Athletic have a range of attributes, including a solid defence, organisation, pace up top, quality on set pieces... We have to bear that in mind. Our approach will be different to the semi-final because Athletic have different characteristics to Barcelona."

The former Chelsea and Everton manager also addressed a question about his team's style of play and he was keen to dismiss the idea that there is a defined approach that guarantees success.

"I respect everyone, every facet of football is to be respected," he added. "There's not some magic approach which guarantees you'll win. The perfect system doesn't exist. 

"You don't win every time because you play with the ball, or on the counter. A game can be won on set-pieces too. If we play defensively one day, it doesn't mean we're a defensive team. We've scored more goals than any other team in LaLiga."

Ancelotti also had words of praise for Karim Benzema, who scored Madrid's second on Wednesday and has plundered 23 goals in 26 appearances in all competitions this season, as well as registering nine assists.

"He hasn't changed, he's as humble as ever," his manager said. 

"What's changed is how others are seeing him. They're looking to him more as a leader. I think people look at him differently to how they did six years ago."

Federico Valverde scored in extra time as Real Madrid advanced to the Supercopa de Espana final with a 3-2 victory over Barcelona. 

Vinicius Junior gave Madrid a deserved lead shortly after the midway point of the first half in Riyadh, yet Luuk de Jong ensured the sides went in at the break level with a fortuitous equaliser. 

Karim Benzema restored Los Blancos' advantage in the 72nd minute, only for Ansu Fati to draw Xavi's men level once again with seven minutes left of normal time. 

Valverde clipped home eight minutes into extra time, however, to set up a final clash on Sunday against either Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao, who do battle in the second semi-final on Thursday. 

Madrid's bright start was rewarded in the 25th minute when Vinicius raced beyond Ronald Araujo and fired past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen after Benzema had dispossessed Sergio Busquets on the halfway line.

Barca pulled level four minutes before the interval, Eder Militao's attempted clearance inside the six-yard area smashing against De Jong and spinning in off the inside of Thibaut Courtois' right-hand post.

Moments after crashing an effort against the upright, Benzema slotted home from close range after Vinicius' cross had been diverted into his path by Ter Stegen. 

Substitute Fati, who was making his first appearance since November 6, sent the game to extra time, though, heading Jordi Alba's cross past Courtois from six yards.

Carlo Ancelotti's men sealed their spot in the final in the first half of extra time when Valverde slid home after a counter-attacking move that saw Barca desperately outnumbered. 

Carlo Ancelotti said the penalty awarded to Real Madrid in their 4-1 win over Valencia on Saturday "seemed quite clear" after Los Che's official Twitter account suggested it was a "robbery".

Madrid went ahead two minutes before the interval through Karim Benzema's 300th goal in all competitions for the club, the France international powering home from the spot after Omar Alderete had been penalised for a foul inside the area on Casemiro.

That led to Valencia's Twitter account posting: "The robbery in Madrid begins to be somewhat repetitive."

The tweet also tagged the hit Netflix show Money Heist, which follows a group of bank robbers in the Spanish capital.

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique could not resist getting involved, replying to the Valencia tweet with the message: "Do not say it too loud that you are going to be sanctioned."

Ancelotti, though, had no issues with the award of the penalty, telling a media conference: "From a distance it seemed quite clear to me but I don't know anything else about what happened.

"I don't know what to say. I have to evaluate the game. We deserved to win and it is true that the penalty has helped us but I think the game was complete."

 

Madrid sealed a third consecutive LaLiga win over Valencia in the second half thanks to a brace from Vinicius Junior – his fourth double of the season – and a second strike from Benzema.

Vinicius has been involved in a goal every 101.6 minutes in all competitions this season for Los Blancos (14 goals, seven assists) – his best ratio in a single season for the club.

Benzema, meanwhile, became just the fourth Madrid player to hit 300 goals for the club, after Cristiano Ronaldo (450), Raul (323) and Alfredo Di Stefano (308).

Despite the duo's superb form this season, Ancelotti hinted that he could be ready to shuffle his pack up front in the coming weeks.

"I think we have to think game by game," he added. "Vinicius has returned well. He has not excelled much in dribbling but he was ready to score goals. He has scored goals from a forward area and Karim is always the same.

"We are going to compete, be it with [Marco] Asensio, Rodrygo or whoever. They have done very well. No one is immovable because each game is different.

"Today they have done very well but I also have to think about other players. We are lucky to have these players who stand out a lot."

Madrid are next in action on Wednesday when they take on arch rivals Barcelona in the Supercopa de Espana semi-finals.

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema scored his 300th goal in all competitions for the club in Saturday's 4-1 LaLiga win over Valencia.

A penalty just before half-time at the Santiago Bernabeu saw the France international bring up the landmark, before he added a second late on to take his tally to 22 goals in 25 games this season.

Benzema reached the impressive figure in just 584 appearances for Los Merengues, becoming the fourth player to reach that milestone in club's history after Cristiano Ronaldo (450), Raul (323) and Alfredo Di Stefano (308).

The 34-year-old joined Real Madrid from Lyon in 2009, and has won four Champions League titles, four FIFA Club World Cups, three LaLiga titles and two Copas del Rey.

Benzema had a fine 2021, getting 30 goals for his club as well as winning the Nations League with France, scoring the opener as Les Bleus beat Spain 2-1 in the final in October.

Karim Benzema scored his 300th Real Madrid goal and Vinicius Junior hit a brace as Carlo Ancelotti's side beat Valencia 4-1 to open an eight-point lead at the summit of LaLiga.

Los Blancos suffered a shock 1-0 defeat to Getafe last weekend, but a second consecutive loss never looked likely after Benzema's landmark goal from the penalty spot shortly before the interval.

Vinicius scored twice in the second half and Benzema rounded things off late on as the hosts secured a third consecutive win over Jose Bordalas' men with minimum fuss, despite Goncalo Guedes's goal.

The win increased Madrid's lead over second-placed Sevilla, although Julen Lopetegui's side have two games in hand, while Valencia remained ninth.

Eder Militao, Marco Asensio and Benzema went close before Luka Modric crashed a left-footed effort against the crossbar from 15 yards as Madrid dominated.

Their pressure eventually told two minutes before the interval when Benzema rifled into the top corner from 12 yards after Casemiro had been brought down inside the area by Omar Alderete.

Madrid picked up where they left off after the restart, Vinicius doubling their advantage from close range in the 52nd minute after fortuitously bundling through a crowd of defenders.

The Brazil international grabbed a third after 61 minutes, nodding in from almost on the line after Jasper Cillessen had parried Asensio's powerful strike.

Valencia scored a consolation 15 minutes later, Guedes heading home after Thibaut Courtois had saved his initial penalty, which was given for a foul on Marcos Andre by Ferland Mendy.

Benzema rounded off his memorable game late on, spinning and firing in off the post from 12 yards as Madrid got their title charge back on track in style.

Carlo Ancelotti has been pleased with LaLiga leaders Real Madrid's performances up to the halfway point of the campaign but warned there is a long way to go in the title race.

Karim Benzema's first-half double was enough to see Madrid past Athletic Bilbao 2-1 on Wednesday, the striker becoming just the fourth player – excluding Lionel Messi (nine times) and Cristiano Ronaldo (seven) – to hit 30-plus LaLiga goals in a calendar year.

Toni Kroos assisted the first of Benzema's seven-minute brace, the Germany international's 77th assist in all competitions for Los Blancos since signing in the 2014-15 campaign – no Madrid player has managed more in that period.

Ancelotti's side, who were without the likes of David Alaba and Isco due to COVID-19, managed to hang on for victory to move eight points clear of second-placed Sevilla heading into 2022.

The Italian boss, who is undefeated in six top-flight meetings with Marcelino, told reporters of his pride in the performance of his rotated side: "The victory means a lot to us, because of the COVID casualties, because of the complete game that has come out with a team that was not used to playing together. 

"We must highlight this, the game of Nacho, Lucas [Vazquez], [Eduardo] Camavinga, [Eden] Hazard, [Federico] Valverde ... They all had a great game. 

"Most of the time it was a game of quality and great commitment, that's the most important thing for me, almost like the three points, which is what always counts."

Asked about his side's lead and title credentials, Ancelotti responded: "We have done very well, but the balance is at the end of the season. So far, so good. 

"We will see if something can be won, that is the requirement of this club. But now we have a week off, we deserve it."

 

San Mames has been a happy hunting ground for Madrid, who are without defeat in seven league games in Bilbao – their best ever unbeaten streak there.

The home crowd greeted Benzema's late removal with rapturous applause and Ancelotti hailed his forward's performance alongside the work rate of Eden Hazard and Vinicius Junior.

Ancelotti added on Benzema's reception: "The ovation to Karim was fantastic, this stadium has a spectacular atmosphere, I really like it. Karim has deserved it.

"They [Hazard and Vinicius] understand very well what the team has to do, in defence and attack, they did it well. 

"They were committed and put quality, especially at the beginning. The difference is defending, we know this team can attack and score, we have very good individuals. So far, we are doing well."

Indeed, Madrid have defended well, conceding just one goal across December despite facing Athletic twice, Inter, Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid.

Ancelotti was also buoyed on by the continued return of Hazard, whose career with the LaLiga giants has been hampered by injuries and fitness issues so far.

The Madrid head coach said on Hazard: "Yes, it works for the team, it is true that he had doubts about his physical appearance, but he did well, in the second half he fought, he tried things. He's back, I agree."

Madrid next face Getafe on January 2 after the mid-season break and will be boosted by the return of Rodrygo, who confirmed he had tested negative for coronavirus after initially returning a positive test last Thursday.

Karim Benzema reached 30 LaLiga goals in 2021 with a first-half double as Real Madrid edged past Athletic Bilbao 2-1 to extend their lead at the summit.

Benzema's brace inside seven minutes on Wednesday quickly helped atone for Madrid's goalless draw with lowly Cadiz last time out.

Oihan Sancet halved the deficit in a frantic opening at San Mames, but the hosts rarely troubled Thibaut Courtois after the interval as Carlo Ancelotti's side navigated the contest to seal the three points.

Victory means Madrid boast an eight-point advantage over second-placed Sevilla heading into 2022 and a 17-point lead over defending champions Atletico Madrid, who were defeated by Granada.

Madrid struck first when Benzema expertly whipped into the bottom-right corner following Toni Kroos' offload, before the France striker added a quickfire second as he rolled past Julen Agirrezabala – Madrid scoring twice in the first seven minutes of a top-flight game for the first time since 1994.

Sancet responded by crashing a strike from the edge of the area in off the left post, with Unai Vencedor then wastefully curling just over as Athletic searched for an equaliser.

Kroos sliced harmlessly off target from range after the interval, while Inaki Williams fired narrowly wide and Raul Garcia blasted over as the game headed towards what promised to be a nervy ending.

Substitute Nico Williams then failed to slide under Courtois as Athletic, despite their best efforts, were unable to find a late leveller as Madrid held on for a narrow victory to make it 11 LaLiga games unbeaten. 


What does it mean? Madrid title charge marches on as unbeaten run continues

Ancelotti's side frustratingly saw their 10-game winning run across all competitions abruptly ended in a goalless draw with Cadiz, but Madrid responded excellently to ensure a healthy eight-point lead heading into LaLiga's mid-season break.

Athletic, who are winless in their past 14 top-flight meetings with Madrid, proved fierce competition for the visitors but could not stop Los Blancos from continuing their unbeaten run in all competitions that stretches back to early October.

Brilliant Benz in cruise control

Benzema's first-half double were his 29th and 30th goals of 2021 in LaLiga. Since the turn of the century only four players – excluding Lionel Messi (nine times) and Cristiano Ronaldo (seven) – have reached the 30-goal milestone in the competition.

Indeed, the France international joins esteemed company with Luis Suarez (2015 and 2016), Radamel Falcao (2012) and Ronaldo Nazario (2003) the others to achieve the feat and the Madrid striker now also has 17 goals in 26 games against Athletic across all competitions.

Muniain masterclass in vain

Iker Muniain delivered a creative masterclass on the left wing against Lucas Vazquez, though the Athletic veteran's showing eventually proved in vain.

The Spain international created a game-high four chances – two more than any other player on the pitch – as he produced a delightful attacking display for the home crowd.

What's next?

Madrid return to action in the new year as they travel to Getafe on January 2, while Athletic visit Osasuna the day after.

Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain each have four nominees in the 23-man shortlist for the FIFA FIFPRO Men's World 11 for 2021.

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson and full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold are also included, although there is no place for Mohamed Salah.

PSG's attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are among the forwards, as is Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Veteran Dani Alves also won enough votes to make the list, even though the 38-year-old, who recently rejoined Barcelona, only played 16 times in domestic competition in Brazil this year.

Professional footballers across the world were asked to vote for the three players they considered to have the best seasons during the 2020-21 season among goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards.

FIFPRO said: "For the first time in 17 years, FIFPRO is updating the announcement about the most-voted players, reducing the shortlist from 55 to 23. This has been done to resemble a real-life 'squad' which, usually for international competitions, is the number of players involved. 

"The three goalkeepers, six defenders, six midfielders and six forwards with the most votes earned a place in the 23-men World 11 'squad'. To complete this elite selection, the two remaining outfield players with the most votes were added."

The keeper, three defenders, three midfielders and three forwards with the most votes will be chosen for the World 11, with the remaining spot assigned to the outfield player with the next highest number of votes.

The final 11 will be announced at The Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony on January 17.

 

FIFA FIFPRO MEN'S WORLD 11 23-PLAYER SHORTLIST:

Goalkeepers:
Alisson (Liverpool, Brazil)
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan/Paris Saint-Germain, Italy)
Edouard Mendy (Chelsea, Senegal)

Defenders:
David Alaba (Bayern Munich/Real Madrid, Austria)
Jordi Alba (Barcelona, Spain)
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool, England)
Dani Alves (Sao Paulo/Barcelona, Brazil)
Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus, Italy)
Ruben Dias (Manchester City, Portugal)

Midfielders:
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona, Spain)
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, Belgium)
Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United, Portugal)
Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona, The Netherlands)
Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)
N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Forwards:
Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus/Manchester United, Portugal)
Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund, Norway)
Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)
Romelu Lukaku (Inter/Chelsea, Belgium)
Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain, France)
Lionel Messi (Barcelona/Paris Saint-Germain, Argentina)
Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain, Brazil)

The calendar says Christmas is still two weeks away, but the festivities have begun for Real Madrid.

A comfortable, classy 2-0 Derbi victory over Atletico Madrid put them eight points clear at the top of LaLiga and stretched their winning run to 10 in all competitions.

Beating Atleti also not only ruined Diego Simeone's looming celebration of 10 years in charge, but it also meant Madrid have defeated each of the rest of LaLiga's top seven before they have even reached the halfway stage of the season.

By the time of the Three Kings celebrations across Spain in the first week of January, Madrid might already be planning their title parade in the spring, so comfortable does their advantage at the top appear. This is not the best Real Madrid, not even the best Carlo Ancelotti has coached, but right now, they are untouchable.

And they have their own Reyes Magos: a kingly trio that has carried the team from one victory to the next, and that looked positively regal at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.

Madrid are the first team in Europe's top five leagues this season with two players to score at least 10 league goals, and it was fitting – inevitable, perhaps – that they would combine to slap down a bold Atleti's early signs of promise.

Luka Modric – we'll come back to him – intercepted Koke's pass, Casemiro found Karim Benzema, and suddenly they were away. Vinicius Junior collected Marco Asensio's throughball, looked up, and played an inch-perfect cross.

Only one man from LaLiga has more assists than the Brazilian in all competitions this term, and it's the man who met his delivery on the volley with such supreme skill and precision. Benzema now has 36 goals in 2021, his best return in a calendar year, and three in four games against Atleti. A week away from his 34th birthday, he continues to define and defy the expectations of Real Madrid in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo years; the striker who made Ronaldo tick is the one who proves Madrid can tick without Ronaldo.

Still short of full fitness, Benzema was replaced at half-time, his decisive work done. On came Luka Jovic, who produced an expert piece of hold-up play to send Madrid on their way to their second goal, Vinicius again providing the cross for Marco Asensio. So often accused of never doing it, it feels like Vinicius has only ever played the right ball this season – he has seven assists for 2021-22 now, and is the only player to get two in a single Madrid derby in this century.

And then there's Modric. Of course there's Modric: 36 years old and still dictating derbies with beguiling authority. Two tackles, three interceptions, 35 passes in the Atletico half alone, he seemed a step ahead of every other player, dissipating across the pitch like a high-energy pulse on a wholly different wavelength to the rest. When he faced Joao Felix in his own box, casually stepped across the youngster and stole possession without crossing the touchline, the home fans sang more loudly than they had all evening.

 

It would also be remiss to ignore Thibaut Courtois' contribution. The Belgium goalkeeper is in the form of his life, saving all six shots on target faced here and 11 out of 11 in the past four home league derbies, giving Madrid four consecutive clean sheets in this fixture for the first time. But it's the majesty of Modric, Vinicius and Benzema that looks like continuing this remarkable run.

Madrid face Cadiz, Athletic Bilbao and Getafe before January 6; the hopes of their title challengers may have to be boxed up for another year if Madrid's three kings continue their regal form.

There was nothing especially surprising about Vinicius Junior's performance against Borussia Monchengladbach in last season's 2-2 Champions League draw in Germany.

The Brazilian played as he usually did, with wastefulness interspersed by occasional flashes of flair and trickery.

And there's every reason to suggest that's what you should expect from a teenager still finding his footing. Even the most talented superstars struggle with consistency during their formative years.

Just look at Cristiano Ronaldo. When he first joined Manchester United, he was even more of a showboater who frustrated and entertained in equal measure – a few years later, he was probably the best striker on the planet.

Development is a process, everyone knows that, but it doesn't mean everyone is understanding or patient – even a player's team-mates can get the hump.

Karim Benzema certainly appeared to fit that description at the halfway mark of the game at Gladbach last year.

The target

In the tunnel, Benzema was caught on camera talking to some of his team-mates, allegedly criticising Vinicius in French. He was claimed to have told Ferland Mendy not to pass to the Brazilian, convinced he was "playing against us", according to widely reported translations.

The clip was subsequently shared all over social media, causing a fair bit of embarrassment for Madrid and Benzema. It was pretty humiliating for Vinicius as well.

Vinicius downplayed the situation the following month but it was too late to eradicate the belief held by many, that Madrid's changing room was increasingly divided.

Benzema's half-time comments came after playing just three passes to Vinicius in the first 45 minutes, a period in which the Flamengo youth product could do little right.

There were misplaced short passes, an overhit cross, a ball played behind Luka Modric as the Croatian looked to burst into the box in threatening fashion.

Over the course of the full game (well, the 70 minutes Vinicius played), he failed to get any of his three shots on target, including one woeful slice from a cut-back to the middle of the area, and his 71.4 per cent pass success was the poorest of any Madrid starter.

Of course, players who operate in attacking areas of the pitch do tend to complete fewer passes in general, but Alassane Plea (85.2 per cent), Benzema (87.5) and Marcus Thuram (92.6) were all working in similar positions and were far less wasteful in possession.

In the second half, Benzema didn't pass to him once.

The bond

Following that Champions League encounter, the on-pitch relationship between Benzema and Vinicius proved to be a regular source of debate – while the Frenchman enjoyed a fine individual campaign, his team-mate was still not at the same level of importance to Madrid, as highlighted by his modest 22 LaLiga starts.

But their apparent lack of cohesion on the pitch was by no means one-sided. In fact, during matches both started over the course of the 2020-21 LaLiga season, Benzema actually played slightly more passes to Vinicius (3.3 per match) than he received (3.25 per match).

Their combinations this season accentuate the previous disconnect even more. In the 13 league games both have started, Vinicius has averaged 5.9 passes to Benzema, while the latter has sought out the youngster 4.9 times each match.

They have already combined for 16 chances created in the league this term, just one shy of their total for 2020-21, and that's translated to more goal combinations as well – in all competitions, Benzema and Vinicius have set each other up for seven goals.

Before that October night in Monchengladbach a little over 13 months ago, Benzema and Vinicius had only ever linked up for a goal three times (all competitions) and none of those had been since February 2019.

While it might be a bit of a stretch to suggest Benzema's criticism spurred Vinicius on, they've undoubtedly moved past any lingering awkwardness to form a genuine understanding.

The arrival

Ahead of Sunday's derby with Atletico Madrid, no attacking duo in the top five leagues can better Benzema and Vinicius' collective haul of 22 top-flight goals, while no other club has two players already on double figures.

Of course, there remains the possibility Benzema can't play after sustaining a muscular injury against Real Sociedad last weekend. He had to sit out the 2-0 Champions League win over Inter and is reportedly set to undergo final tests on Friday.

Carlo Ancelotti had been optimistic after the defeat of Inter, so he's certainly not a lost cause. But being without their talisman for such an occasion would really throw a gauntlet down to Vinicius to prove he can handle being the main man – after all, that's presumably the status Madrid chiefs see him taking over the next 10 years or so.

Yet the very fact Vinicius is even being considered as a key player speaks volumes for his progression in a fairly short period of time.

If we go back to that aforementioned awkwardness in Monchengladbach, Vinicius' effectiveness did appear to dip afterwards. Whether that's down to his confidence being rocked by Benzema's criticism is impossible to prove, but the numbers show there was a drop-off.

In his 76 Madrid games prior to that match, Vinicius averaged 3.4 shots, 0.27 goals, 2.0 chances created and 0.2 expected assists on a per-90-minute basis. Across the 42 matches that followed until the end of 2020-21, his productivity decreased significantly in all of those areas.

But Ancelotti's arrival has seen him really kick on. For a while it looked as though Vinicius' days at Madrid were numbered, now he could be a mainstay at the club for years.

Above all, Vinicius appears to have matured massively when it comes to his decision-making. His shooting frequency hasn't recovered all the way (2.9 per 90 minutes), but he's getting 1.5 of those on target, giving him a shooting accuracy of better than 50 per cent – he didn't manage that before or after Benzema's comments.

Similarly, his expected goals has increased slightly to 0.44 every 90 minutes and his average of 0.6 goals is more than double what it had been before Monchengladbach, highlighting not only better shot selection but also greater composure in more difficult situations.

He has enjoyed improvement in terms of chance creation (2.3 per 90 minutes) and xA (0.25) as well. Overall, it feels like Vinicius has finally arrived – but what's changed?

Besides him just getting a bit older and more experienced, it would seem Ancelotti simply has greater trust in him than Zinedine Zidane did, hence why all of Vinicius' 18 most recent appearances have been as a starter.

This time last year, the thought of Benzema missing the derby and having to rely on Vinicius to step up would've filled many Madrid fans with dread. How things change.

Vinicius Junior insisted he wants to stay with Real Madrid when asked to put a price tag on his potential worth amid an excellent run of form.

The Brazil international is into his fourth season with LaLiga's leaders and has formed a fruitful partnership with Karim Benzema this campaign to put Madrid eight points clear after 16 games.

The pair rank as the joint-best attacking duo across Europe's top five leagues this term with 22 goals between them, the same amount as Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry combined.

Indeed, Vinicius has netted 10 times in 16 top-flight appearances so far, becoming the first player born in 2000 or later to reach double figures for goals in a single LaLiga season.

The former Flamengo attacker was asked to value himself ahead of the derby clash with city rivals Atletico Madrid on Sunday, but refused to do so as he reiterated his happiness to stay with Carlo Ancelotti's team.

"It's better not to put any [price tag on me]," Vinicius told Vamos. "It's better to stay here in Madrid.

"I always listen to the people that I have by my side, at home and at the club, not the outsiders. Of course, the outsiders speak, but I don't care, I listen to the people who love me and who are with me from the beginning."

 

Given Vinicius' recent form, the winger was asked about his aspirations to win the Ballon d'Or, but he passed credit onto Benzema, who ranks third for goal involvements among players from Europe's top five leagues (all competitions) this season (25) – behind only Lewandowski (30) and Mohamed Salah (29).

Nevertheless, Vinicius does believe he possesses the talent to win the prize one day.

"I have to work hard for that, I have to keep playing here, keep doing things well and always be the best version of myself," he continued. 

"If I keep playing like that, of course I can win it, but the main thing for me is the team and to win many titles with Real Madrid.

"[Benzema] is a great player, everything he does seems very easy. He always helps the team and I am closer to him – whenever I can, I help him. I must continue like this, improving to help Karim win the Ballon d'Or and continue being our top scorer."

Since his debut in September 2018, only four players – Benzema (159), Casemiro (148), Thibaut Courtois (147) and Luka Modric (143) – have appeared more for Madrid across all competitions than Vinicius (140).

In fact, this season the 21-year-old has played 22 times for Los Blancos, the joint-most among at the club alongside goalkeeper Courtois, but Vinicius is not worried about burning out with a heavy workload.

"Sometimes of course I feel tired from playing so much, but I always want to play, to be on the field to help the team," he added. 

"I am at my best technically and physically and mentally as well. I want to continue playing and rest at Christmas."

Milan host Liverpool knowing they need a win to keep their Champions League hopes alive in one of the headline fixtures on Tuesday.

Real Madrid and Inter meet in a battle for top spot in Group D, with both already qualified as the Italian side travel to Spain with a woeful recent record.

Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are already through in Group A as well, with Lionel Messi aiming to follow in the footsteps of George Weah and Neymar at home to Club Brugge.

Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data behind the next set of matches.

Milan v Liverpool: Reds eye English record

Milan are searching for their first win against an English side in Europe since February 2012, while the Rossoneri have recorded victory in just one of their past nine home games in the Champions League group stage.

In contrast, Liverpool have triumphed in all five of their opening games this season as they look to become the first English side to win all six of their group-stage matches in a single campaign.

The Reds are also aiming to record victories in six consecutive games in the European Cup/Champions League for the first time in their history, with Alisson on the hunt for three consecutive clean sheets in the continental competition for his first time.

Paris Saint-Germain v Club Brugge: Mbappe and Messi await leaky defence

Club Brugge were defeated by five goals in their last clash against RB Leipzig, the third consecutive group game in which they conceded at least four times.

No team has ever gone four straight games letting in at least four, but the Belgians will have to negotiate with Messi, who could become just the third player – after Weah in 1994 and Neymar in 2017 – to score in his first three consecutive home games for PSG in the competition.

The visitors will also have to contend with Kylian Mbappe, the France international managing five goal involvements in three matches against Brugge – his joint-most against a single opponent in the competition, along with Red Star and Istanbul Basaksehir.

RB Leipzig v Manchester City: Guardiola's men out to defend German record

City are unbeaten in their previous 14 games against German opposition, including a six-game undefeated streak on the road, in a run that stretches back to November 2014 in the Champions League.

The reigning Premier League champions have won their past nine such fixtures, scoring 28 goals and conceding just nine in return, while Leipzig are winless in their most recent three meetings with English sides.

If Leipzig fail to defeat Pep Guardiola's side, it will be the first time they have not registered a single home win during the group stages in Europe.

Real Madrid v Inter: Los Blancos looking for goalscoring milestone 

Inter have claimed just one win in their past 11 meetings with Spanish opposition in European competition and their last away win against such sides came all the way back in October 2004.

The Serie A outfit have not beaten Madrid in Europe since March 1967 as Carlo Ancelotti's side look to score their 1,000th goal in the European Cup/Champions League in just their 455th game.

Karim Benzema could be central to Madrid hitting that milestone if he is passed fit, the forward already with five group-stage goals to his name this term as he sits two behind Raul in the club charts in the competition (66).

 

Other fixtures:

Ajax v Sporting CP:

16 - Ajax have scored 16 goals in their five games in the Champions League this season, with only Bayern Munich (19) and Manchester City (17) finding the net more.

15 - The previous three meetings between Ajax and Sporting have seen a total of 15 goals scored, at an average of five goals per game. Indeed, neither side has managed to keep a clean sheet in any of their three clashes to date.

Borussia Dortmund v Besiktas:

60 - Jude Bellingham has had a direct hand in 60 per cent of Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League goals this season (one scored, two assisted), with the last Englishman to enjoy more than three goal involvements during the group stages of a season before the age of 19 being Jack Wilshere in 2010-11 for Arsenal (one scored, three assisted).

5 - Besiktas remain the only Champions League side in 2021-22 to lose all five of their matches and are looking to avoid being the first team since AEK Athens in 2018-19 to lose each of their six group games.

Porto v Atletico Madrid:

5 - Porto will be aiming to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League for a fifth time in their past five tournament appearances (2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2020-21). The last time they failed to do so was in 2015-16 under Julen Lopetegui.

786 - Luis Suarez's only goal in 11 appearances for Atletico Madrid in the Champions League was a penalty against Milan in September, giving him a minutes-per-goal ratio of 786. At previous club Barcelona, the Uruguay striker scored 25 goals in 55 appearances, with a minutes-per-goal ratio of 192.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Sheriff: 

1 - Shakhtar Donetsk have only won one of their past 11 home games in the Champions League (D5 L5), while they have failed to score in seven of the games in this run, including both in 2021-22 (D1 L1).

25 – Sheriff's 2-0 victory over Shakhtar in this season's tournament came despite the Moldovan side having just 25 per cent possession – since 2003-04, only Atletico (23) versus Barcelona in April 2016 have won a Champions League game by multiple goals with a lower possession percentage.

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