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.

It seems bizarre to suggest that in a contest between a club that has never won the European Cup or Champions League and another that has won 13 of them, it is the latter who will go into it as the underdog.

That is the case this week, though, with Manchester City and Real Madrid set to go head-to-head for a place in this season's Champions League final.

There is obviously reasoning behind this, with Pep Guardiola's side winning every other trophy available to them in recent years and breezing through their European campaign up to this point, a few scars from their quarter-final with Atletico Madrid aside.

Carlo Ancelotti's men have had a tougher road to get here, having to get past newly crowned French champions Paris Saint-Germain and reigning European champions Chelsea so far in the knockout stages.

They had to produce stirring comebacks in both ties, but City are an altogether different prospect, having finished above PSG in the group stage and beaten Chelsea home and away in the Premier League this season.

The English side have very few obvious weaknesses, but perhaps there is one area where Ancelotti can focus ahead of the first leg in Manchester.

Guardiola has recently been slightly overstating his lack of options, saying before the game with Watford at the weekend that City were suffering an injury crisis, before using 14 players that cost approximately £695million (€825m) (according to Transfermarkt.co.uk) to beat the Hornets 5-1.

However, one of his star performers this season has undoubtedly been Joao Cancelo, and the Portuguese full-back is suspended for the first clash with Madrid, while Kyle Walker remains a doubt with an ankle injury.

"They are doubts," the City manager said at a news conference on Monday when asked about Walker and John Stones. "They didn't train for the last week, 10 days... We will see how they feel and take a decision tomorrow."

This could lead to Guardiola having to get a bit creative at right-back, with Oleksandr Zinchenko presumably getting the nod on the left.

Most eyes will be on the likes of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric to lead the visitors, with both producing their usual big-game performances to make the difference against PSG and Chelsea, but the key at the Etihad Stadium may be another slightly unsung hero.

It's not that Vinicius Junior is not highly rated. This season he has exploded into one of the most potent attackers in world football, but this could be the perfect time for him to cement his name as a star of Real Madrid's present and future.

The Brazilian has always been considered a talent but could never quite put together the consistent run of form expected of regular starters in the famous all-white kit, until this season.

Vinicius has registered 31 goal involvements (17 goals, 14 assists) in 45 games in all competitions (42 starts), and has created 94 chances from open play.

Compare this to last season and you can see his significant improvement, managing just 10 goal involvements (six goals, four assists) in 49 appearances (31 starts) in 2020-21, with just 43 chances created from open play.

His numbers are now up there with the best in Europe. In terms of chances created from open play in the top five European leagues this season, only Bruno Fernandes (101) and Thomas Muller (100) have created more than his 94.

No-one has attempted more than his 303 dribbles this season, while only Adama Traore, Kylian Mbappe (both 137) and Allan Saint-Maximin (136) have completed more dribbles than his 127.

Vinicius is well established as a standout performer in LaLiga this season as well, with only Benzema (25), Enes Unal and Raul de Tomas (both 15) having scored more than his 14, while only Benzema (36) has more goal involvements than his 22.

Speaking of Benzema, his partnership with the 34-year-old marksman is developing into one of the most potent in the game, with the duo having provided the most goals for each other in the Champions League this season (six), ahead of Ajax's Antony and Sebastian Haller, and Bayern Munich's Leroy Sane and Muller (both four).

Vinicius is always a threat, as shown against Chelsea at the Santiago Bernabeu in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final. Blues right-back Reece James had been doing a good job of containing him, until one switch off in extra time allowed the 21-year-old down the left, and he played a perfect cross in for Benzema to score what proved to be the winning goal in the tie.

There is another Brazilian winger for City to potentially watch out for, though, in Rodrygo, who also played a crucial role in dumping out Chelsea by scoring moments after coming off the bench in the second leg.

While he has certainly not emerged like Vinicius just yet, the former Santos player has been making himself a more integral part of Ancelotti's squad, with 41 appearances in all competitions so far this season (19 starts), which is already more than the 33 (13 starts) he managed in 2020-21.

He has 12 goal involvements (four goals, eight assists) this season, up from nine last year (two goals, seven assists), and the youngster recently told Real Madrid's official website that he is looking forward to the test of City.

"They'll be tough opponents," he said. "We know the way they play and how good they are. If they've made it to the Champions League semi-finals, it means they're good, and it's down to the way City like to play, with a lot of possession.

"We're expecting a tough match and we have to make sure we keep playing like we have been and try to make it through."

Rodrygo might be under more pressure to perform given recent rumours that he may be one of the players who will have to make way for Mbappe should the club finally land the PSG star at the end of the season.

That being said, arguably Mbappe's best position is where Vinicius is currently doing his damage, which leads you to wonder if he too might be playing for his long-term future.

Of course, the Frenchman can play through the middle but there's another significant obstacle in the way there too in the form of his compatriot Benzema.

If Vinicius and Rodrygo want to make a case for maintaining their roles at the club, they have the perfect opportunity to do so by taking Madrid to a first Champions League final since 2018, and we will see just how ready for the challenge they are at the Etihad.

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti backed Karim Benzema to bounce back after missing two penalties in the 3-1 win over Osasuna on Wednesday.

Ante Budimir cancelled out David Alaba's 12th-minute opener before Marco Asensio restored Madrid's advantage at El Sadar.

Benzema was then twice denied by Sergio Herrera from 12 yards as the France star became the first player to miss two penalties in a LaLiga game since Raul Tamudo against Real Betis in April 2006.

Lucas Vazquez sealed victory for the league leaders in stoppage time as Madrid moved 17 points clear of nearest challengers Atletico Madrid, with distant chasers Sevilla and Barcelona playing on Thursday.

Speaking after the game, Ancelotti was quick to defend Benzema, who leads LaLiga scoring charts with 25 goals to this season.

"Penalties are missed by those who take them, it won't affect Benzema. Karim played a super game, he's going to score the next game," he said.

Alaba limped off at half-time and was subsequently withdrawn at the interval, but Ancelotti did not appear concerned about the centre-back's injury.

"We are optimistic with Alaba. We removed him as a precaution, he has been overloaded with a lot of work," the Italian added.

Madrid will now turn their attention to the Champions League semi-final first-leg clash at Manchester City on Tuesday, and Ancelotti insists his focus will be solely on that tie and not securing the league title.

"The title? We plan to prepare well for the next match, which is the semi-final of the Champions League," he continued.

"Then let's see what happens. We need to win. We are focused on the semi-final match and I think we are going to arrive in good form."

Real Madrid moved one step closer to the LaLiga title with a 3-1 victory at Osasuna despite Karim Benzema twice failing from the penalty spot on Wednesday.

Madrid needed a stunning comeback to win 3-2 at Sevilla after a slow start on Sunday, but were quick out the blocks at El Sadar as David Alaba struck after 12 minutes before Ante Budimir immediately equalised.

Marco Asensio restored Madrid's lead in the 45th minute and, after Benzema saw two penalties saved by Sergio Herrera in the second half, Lucas Vazquez sealed victory in stoppage-time.

Victory moved Madrid 17 points clear of Atletico Madrid, with distant chasers Sevilla and Barcelona also in action against Levante and Real Sociedad respectively on Thursday.

Rodrygo forced a smart Herrera stop with a long-range effort in the opening exchanges, but Madrid were soon ahead.

A quick free-kick from Asensio and Dani Ceballos found space for Benzema, before the striker squared for Alaba, who fortuitously bundled home on the rebound from a Herrera reflex save.

Osasuna responded a minute later when Chimy Avila whipped across from the right for Budimir to tap-in.

Asensio pounced on Ceballos' saved close-range effort to poke Madrid ahead again on the stroke of half-time, before Thibaut Courtois excellently denied a looping Budimir header after the interval.

Avila then handled when trying to stop Rodrygo to offer Madrid a penalty, which Herrera saved against Benzema.

Benzema went for the same bottom-left corner after Rodrygo was felled by Nacho Vidal, with Herrera again guessing the right way.

Vinicius Junior then rolled wide on the counter before teeing up Vazquez, who finished into the bottom-left corner to confirm the win.

What does it mean? Title procession continues for Madrid

Madrid's title charge has been characterised by their fighting spirit to come through adversity to secure victory, and their performance at El Sadar was no different.

Los Blancos weathered an early storm from the hosts to take the half-time lead and, although Benzema twice failed from 12 yards, battled to victory over Osasuna, who have not defeated Madrid in 14 top-flight meetings.

Now, Ancelotti's team will tick off another fixture as they edge closer towards lifting the LaLiga trophy.

 

Rampant Rodrygo spares Benzema blushes

Winger Rodrygo was the star of the show as his half-time introduction sparked a comeback against Sevilla, and he was on form again against Osasuna as he won two penalties and laid on a game-high four chances.

The Brazil international's creative excellence did not prove fruitful for Benzema, who became the first player to miss two penalties in a LaLiga game since Raul Tamudo against Betis in April 2006.

Budimir efforts in vain

Budimir has scored in each of his last five LaLiga games (five goals in total) as he became only the second Osasuna player to score in five successive top-flight games in the 21st century after Richard Morales in 2004. However, the striker's efforts ultimately proved in vain against the league leaders.

What's next?

Madrid visit Manchester City in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final clash on Tuesday, before hosting Espanyol on Saturday – the day before Osasuna are away at Elche.

Carlo Ancelotti acknowledged Real Madrid are "close" to sealing the league title after a dramatic comeback win over Sevilla on Sunday.

Sevilla looked to be breathing life back into LaLiga's race for first place when they found themselves 2-0 up thanks to goals from Ivan Rakitic and Erik Lamela.

However, referee Guillermo Cuadra Fernandez's decision not to issue a second yellow card and send off Eduardo Camavinga for a heavy challenge late in the first half would have significant ramifications.

Camavinga was withdrawn for Rodrygo at half-time and the Brazilian quickly made an impact, pulling one back with a smart finish early in the second half.

Nacho Fernandez levelled for a dominant Madrid eight minutes from time and then Karim Benzema sealed the win that surely puts them out of reach in stoppage time.

Even if Barca win their two games in hand, Madrid will be nine points clear and their run-in looks relatively kind, with only Atletico Madrid and Real Betis likely to cause them significant bother.

As such, head coach Ancelotti recognised Madrid are almost at the finish line.

He told LaLiga TV: "No, it's not over, but it's really close.

"Everyone is waiting for the defeat of Real Madrid, but we are still on fire."

Despite the drama of the contest, Ancelotti cut a composed figure at full-time – though he stressed that was more down to mental fatigue than being relaxed.

"It looks normal because I'm so tired! I suffered a lot," he said with a smile. "I need time to recover."

Madrid have made a habit of comebacks in recent months, particularly in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.

Sunday was the latest impressive example and, elaborating on what is leading to these turnarounds, Ancelotti added: "The history of this club, the quality of the players and their sense of belonging, they feel something special when wearing the shirt. It's nothing new for Real Madrid and I think this is the reason."

One moment of second-half controversy looked set to cost Madrid when Vinicius Junior controversially had an equaliser disallowed for handball as the ball struck the top of his arm.

While it ultimately mattered little in the grand scheme, Ancelotti was keen to reveal his bemusement at the decision.

"We thought the same," he replied when it was put to him that the decision was harsh.

"As a supporter, I didn't understand why the goal of Vinicius was disallowed, it was not handball.

"I know it's really difficult to judge this kind of situation, but I think it was quite clearly a goal."

Real Madrid fought back from 2-0 down to beat Sevilla 3-2 as Karim Benzema's stoppage-time winner took them a step closer to clinching the title.

Sevilla looked to be breathing life back in LaLiga's title race, but Carlo Ancelotti's side produced a brutal second-half performance to make a real statement.

Perhaps suffering something of a Champions League hangover, Madrid were sluggish and found themselves trailing to goals from Ivan Rakitic and Erik Lamela, both caused by defensive mishaps.

But the pattern of play was dramatically flipped on its head after the break, with Rodrygo pulling one back and fellow substitute Nacho Fernandez equalising, before king of comebacks Benzema sealed the turnaround.

Carlo Ancelotti does not care if Real Madrid's critics pin their achievements on the prodigious scoring feats of Karim Benzema.

Goals win titles, and Madrid are well on their way to landing another LaLiga crown, while they are through to the semi-finals in the Champions League too.

Benzema has 38 goals from as many games this season, plus 13 assists, with those strikes coming at one every 85 minutes.

Madrid's next highest scorer is Vinicius Junior who has managed 17 goals in 43 appearances, with Marco Asensio next on the list after scoring 10 times.

This has been a career-best season for Benzema to date in terms of those goal numbers, with the 34-year-old Frenchman thriving on the responsibility of taking over the captaincy from Sergio Ramos.

Ancelotti sees Benzema's outstanding input as a major factor, but far from the only reason Madrid could end the season basking in trophy glory.

"We have a very important objective, and we are focused on this," Ancelotti told reporters ahead of Sunday's clash with Sevilla.

"I don't care if they say we played well or badly, I care that the team can compete until the end and fight to win titles.

"We are focused on that, which is reality. They can say that we are the top scorers because we have Benzema, and it's true, but that's only one of the truths.

"The reality is that we want to win, and we are fighting to win titles. The rest doesn't matter."

Ancelotti said Madrid have managed to recharge after the gruelling second leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea, when a 3-2 defeat after extra-time saw Los Blancos sneak through 5-4 on aggregate.

They tackle third-placed Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, with Benzema having often struggled to make a telling impact in this particular fixture.

He has scored eight goals in 21 LaLiga games against Sevilla but only one in 10 such fixtures away from home. Only at Camp Nou, where he has played 13 matches and managed just one goal, has Benzema played more away games with so few goals scored in the competition.

Ancelotti will hope he improves that record as Madrid, holding a 12-point lead at the summit, attempt to close in on the title.

"We need to win and add points, because LaLiga is not yet won," Ancelotti said.

"Everyone is waiting for Real Madrid to suffer a puncture, and hopefully that doesn't come, because LaLiga is not over. Every game can be a trap."

Sevilla and Real Madrid were title rivals when they last met in LaLiga back in November.

Then, as is the case now, Madrid led the table, but Sevilla were just two points back in third having played the same number of games. Optimism was growing for a genuine title fight.

But the team the capital from behind to win 2-1 through a late Vinicius Junior goal and have since opened a significant gap to Sevilla.

Including the three earned at the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid have collected 10 more points than Sevilla in the intervening period.

Now, as the sides prepare to face off again at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Carlo Ancelotti's men – fresh from reaching the Champions League semi-finals – look to be coasting towards a 35th championship.

Even victory for Sevilla would only close the deficit to nine points with six games to play – and such a result feels highly unlikely based on recent history.

One-sided recent rivalry

Perhaps discussion of a tussle at the top earlier in the season was premature given Madrid's dominance of this fixture in the past few seasons.

Defeat at the Bernabeu was Sevilla's fifth in six league matches against Madrid, with their other encounter in that run a draw.

Indeed, this is their worst winless run against Madrid since a sequence of 15 games between May 1993 and April 2003 – 13 of which were losses. That was Sevilla's longest such streak against Madrid in LaLiga history.

 

Away day success in Andalusia 

This miserable stretch for Sevilla has included consecutive home defeats to Madrid, who are now bidding to win three in a row away from home in this fixture for the first time since a run of four ended in November 1996.

Those past two Madrid victories have been by 1-0 scorelines, meaning they could become only the third team in LaLiga history to win three in a row at Sevilla without conceding after Barcelona in March 1961 (three matches) and Celta Vigo in November 2003 (four).

Madrid have enjoyed recent trips to Andalusia as a whole, winning on their past seven visits. This is their best ever such run in LaLiga.

Los Blancos have scored in 31 of their past 32 league matches in the region (W24 D2 L6) for 78 goals in total at a rate of 2.44 goals per game.

Can ex-flop Lop stop the rot?

The match in November was Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui's 100th in LaLiga, but it should have come as no surprise that it did not come to plan. His career rarely has when Lopetegui has become entwined with Madrid.

His Spain tenure was ended prematurely when he agreed to join Madrid as coach on the eve of the 2018 World Cup – a decision that panned out for nobody.

Lopetegui oversaw just six wins in 14 matches in all competitions before he was sacked after a 5-1 defeat to rivals Barcelona. His win rate of 42.9 per cent was the second-lowest among all Madrid coaches to oversee multiple games.

As evidenced by the result in November, things have scarcely improved for Lopetegui where Madrid are concerned since his dismissal.

He has overseen five of the six matches in Sevilla's winless run in this fixture, with the four defeats tied for his most against any team in LaLiga – along with Barca, of course.

On the other hand, opposite number Ancelotti has won six of his seven games against Sevilla as a coach, including two victories in finals, winning the UEFA Super Cup with Milan in 2007 and Madrid in 2014.

Benz at his best while Martial flounders

It was hoped the January signing of Anthony Martial would boost Sevilla's title hopes, yet his only goal in their colours so far came in the Europa League against Dinamo Zagreb.

There has been just a single assist in LaLiga, too, meaning Martial is still waiting for his 100th goal involvement in Europe's top five leagues two months on from his 99th – that tee-up for Rafa Mir against Elche.

 

This underwhelming form stands in stark contrast to that of compatriot Karim Benzema, who has 38 goals in 38 games in all competitions this season, with only Robert Lewandowski matching his 51 goal involvements among players in Europe's top five leagues.

Benzema has eight goals in 21 LaLiga games against Sevilla, although he has scored just once in 10 visits to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Only at Camp Nou (one goal in 13 games) has he played as many games while scoring so few goals.

Of all the seasons to improve that return, though, this is surely the one.

Chelsea clawed their way back into an exhilarating Champions League quarter-final tie with Real Madrid through some unlikely sources, but there was nothing surprising about the identity of the players that eventually booked Los Blancos' place in the last four.

Backed up against the wall after a meek 3-1 defeat to a Karim Benzema-inspired Madrid in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, the defending champions were brilliant for much of a captivating return fixture, quieting the Santiago Bernabeu by showing control and composure that belied their plight.

Unlike in west London, where Madrid were afforded far too much possession and space, Chelsea commanded the midfield for long periods, the metronomic Mateo Kovacic - who completed 96 per cent of his passes and 98.5 per cent in the opposition half - playing a key role in what for a while appeared to be the undoing of his former club.

It was a midfielder who put Chelsea ahead on the night in the 15th minute, Mason Mount producing an unerring finish to beat the outstretched arm of former Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois after neat build-up play that saw him eventually teed up by Timo Werner - more on him shortly.

Madrid kept hold of the aggregate lead until the 51st minute when, after Luka Modric was incorrectly adjudged to have deflected a Reece James shot behind, Antonio Rudiger rose to steer a superb header from Mount's set-piece delivery into the bottom-right corner.

The hosts were then the beneficiaries of controversy when Marcos Alonso had a goal ruled out for a seemingly unintentional handball, an incident that will surely have set in motion further heated debate about the current interpretation of that rule across living rooms and bars in both the English and Spanish capitals.

Carlo Ancelotti's men never learned their lesson and were the antithesis of defensive solidity throughout a breathless contest, and they were punished by Werner 15 minutes from the end of normal time.

Madrid lost possession inside their own half, Kovacic played Werner down the left side of the box and the often-derided former RB Leipzig star jinked his way past three challenges before sending a calm, albeit deflected, close-range finish beyond Courtois.

It took Werner's tally to just 17 goals in 70 games in all competitions since his big-money move from the Bundesliga and looked as if it would be the defining moment - at least in goalscoring terms - of his Chelsea career so far.

Yet Werner's hopes of being Chelsea's saviour were thwarted by three men who have so often played that role for Madrid.

Five minutes after Werner silenced the home fans, Modric had them roaring in adulation, his sublime cross-field pass with the outside of his boot finding Rodrygo, who provided the finish the delivery deserved as his first-time volley left Edouard Mendy with no chance and forced extra time.

That was Modric's 17th Champions League assist and his fourth this season, a tally only one of his team-mates, Vinicius Junior, has bettered. 

It was Vinicius' creativity that ultimately ensured Madrid had the final say.

Chelsea surrendered possession all too easily in midfield and Eduardo Camavinga sent Vinicius tearing down the same flank that brought Werner's goal.

Vinicius' delicate right-footed cross was greeted gratefully and emphatically by first-leg hat-trick hero Benzema, who once again added the final gloss to a Champions League masterpiece with an unstoppable header that brought up his 38th goal of a remarkable campaign and the Brazilian architect's sixth assist in the competition this term, tied with Leroy Sane for the most in the tournament.

As a pairing, Vinicius and Benzema have now combined for 15 goals in all competitions in a season that could yet come to a close with Madrid crowned as both Spanish and European champions.

Chelsea had plenty of opportunities during the remainder of the additional half hour to make it 4-2 on the night and at least force penalties, racking up 28 shots to Madrid's 10 but with just seven of those hitting the target.

Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz and Jorginho will all rue chances they missed in a frantic finale as Chelsea's reign as holders came to an end in an epic tale that, for Madrid, ended in pleasingly familiar fashion. 

Karim Benzema's extra-time goal put Real Madrid into the Champions League semi-finals despite a 3-2 defeat to holders Chelsea on Tuesday.

Goals from Mason Mount, Antonio Rudiger and Timo Werner overturned Real Madrid’s 3-1 advantage from the first leg last week, but Rodrygo’s sublime volley forced the tie into extra time.

Benzema, who scored a hat-trick at Stamford Bridge, had the final say, though, thundering home a header six minutes into extra time to seal a 5-4 aggregate victory. 

Carlo Ancelotti's side will now face either Atletico Madrid or Manchester City, with Pep Guardiola’s side holding a 1-0 lead from the first leg.

Chelsea's strong start was rewarded in the 15th minute when Mount curled past Thibaut Courtois from just inside the penalty area after latching onto Werner's nudged ball forward.

Madrid struggled to break Chelsea's stubborn backline down in the first half, with Ancelotti's men going in at the break without a shot on target to their name. 

Chelsea levelled the tie on aggregate six minutes into the second half, Rudiger planting a powerful header past Courtois from Mount's cross. 

Alonso thought he had edged Chelsea in front 11 minutes later when he thumped into the top corner from eight yards, yet his effort was ruled out for handball following a VAR check. 

Benzema crashed a header against the crossbar soon after, before Werner put Chelsea ahead on aggregate in the 75th minute with a strike that proved too hot for Courtois to handle. 

Madrid clawed their way back into the tie with 10 minutes remaining, though, as Rodrygo, who had only been on the pitch for two minutes, steered a superb volley past Edouard Mendy from Luka Modric's breathtaking cross. 

That set the stage for Benzema's decisive goal in additional time, the France international heading past Mendy from 10 yards out following fine work down the left by Vinicius Junior. 

 

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