Karim Benzema leads the LaLiga scoring charts this term with 17 goals.

But Real Madrid are set to revamp their attacking options if transfer speculation is true.

Benzema turned 34 in December and is contracted until 2023.

TOP STORY – BENZEMA CONCERN ON MADRID FUTURE

Madrid top scorer Benzema has requested a meeting with president Florentino Perez over concerns on his future with Erling Haaland's potential addition, reports Onze.

Los Blancos are set to be bolstered by forwardKylian Mbappe's arrival in the off-season to form an attacking trio alongside Benzema and Vinicius Junior.

But Haaland's potential move from Borussia Dortmund has left Benzema fearing he may lose his spot.

ROUND-UP 

- Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger is being lined up by Bayern Munich as their ideal replacement for Niklas Sule, claims Fichajes. Sule has confirmed his exit to Borussia Dortmund for next season.

- Juventus have a new plan ahead of fresh contract talks with Paulo Dybala, according to Calciomercato. Dybala is unsigned beyond this season.

- Manchester United and Brazilian giants Flamengo have agreed to a £12m fee for the permanent sale of Andreas Pereira, reports Universo.

- Atletico Madrid, who are looking to replace the departed Kieran Trippier, are set to make a €30m offer for Aston Villa full-back Matty Cash, claims Mundo Deportivo.

- Calciomercato reports that Milan still have an eye on Club Brugge's Dutch talent Noa Lang.

Karim Benzema will not be fit to return for Real Madrid's clash with Granada on Sunday, while head coach Carlo Ancelotti insists he has no personal issue with Eden Hazard.

LaLiga top scorer Benzema missed the midweek Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Bilbao with a hamstring complaint.

He was pictured training on Friday, but the France striker will once again miss out for the league leaders, who are without Vinicius Jr through suspension..

"Benzema won't play. He's improved, but he's not 100 per cent yet. He trained yesterday but not today, we've got to wait two or three more days," head coach Ancelotti told a pre-match news conference.

"The team are ready, we know Vinicius and Karim are both out."

Ancelotti acknowledged the importance of Benzema to his team but dismissed the notion Madrid are overly reliant on their talisman.

"Of course we're missing Benzema, he's the top scorer in the league, scoring lots of goals this season for Real Madrid," Ancelotti said.

"I think you look at teams and their Benzemas [star player], if they miss that player of course it's a big loss, it's a blow. 

"Without Benzema it's tougher, but without Benzema we've won games. I think we've done well without Karim Benzema."

Hazard's form has flattered to deceive since joining in a big-money move from Chelsea in 2019, though a star turn in a 2-1 win at Athletic back in December prompted praise from Ancelotti.

Since then, though, minutes have been hard to come by for the Belgium forward, who was an unused substitute for the Copa setback.

Asked about Hazard, Ancelotti replied: "There's no issues between myself and the player, he's training, he's now fit.

"But then I have to decide who I think is the best team. But I just preferred a different player. Hazard played against Elche [in the previous round of the Copa], scored after he came on, it's not as if he's not playing. He has been playing.

"There's not a personal issue with him, there's not a physical issue either, there's no issue we're not sharing about Hazard. No secrets."

Team-mate Gareth Bale was also not utilised in the Copa fixture and was filmed seemingly chuckling when Hazard was told to sit back down with 18 minutes remaining having gone out to warm up.

Ancelotti said he did not see the incident.

"I didn't see it, I don't know why he laughed, and it doesn't seem important to me," the Italian said.

"We wanted to put Hazard on in extra time and that's why he warmed up. Three players have to warm up, that's the maximum. I wanted my players warming up, taking turns, I couldn't send six players to warm up."

Madrid's Copa exit followed a come-from-behind 2-2 draw against Elche in LaLiga last week, with Los Blancos enduring a dip in form.

Ancelotti, though, says he has no issue with any criticism that comes his way.

"I'm not hurt, I'm used to this, to living these moments. It's a confirmation that I'm the coach of Real Madrid and you always have to make decisions, and sometimes you're right and you're wrong. Nothing new," he said.

"I'm so happy that I'm manager here, I don't mind criticism. It keeps me on my toes. It also makes you think things through a bit more."

Carlo Ancelotti admitted Real Madrid missed the quality of Karim Benzema as he claimed their Copa del Rey exit to Athletic Bilbao was not a surprise.

The LaLiga leaders were beaten 1-0 at San Mames on Thursday, Alex Berenguer scoring a brilliant winner in the 89th minute to send Athletic into the semi-finals.

It was a measure of revenge for Marcelino's men, who lost 2-0 in the Supercopa de Espana final to Madrid last month, in which Benzema scored the second goal.

Los Blancos were without their talisman in the Basque country, though, as he had not recovered from a hamstring injury sustained in the 2-2 draw with Elche.

In the absence of Benzema, who has scored 24 goals in 28 appearances this season, Madrid managed just two shots on target against Athletic, while their first-half expected goals figure of 0.1 was their lowest since January 2020.

Ancelotti accepted the decision not to rush Benzema back into action left his side without enough of a threat going forward.

 

"We're hurt because we want to win everything. I don't think it will have consequences. I only hope that it makes us stronger," he said of the defeat, as quoted by Marca.

"We don't have players of Karim's quality. We didn't change the plan. We tried to play from the back, and we couldn't. Athletic's pressing was really great until the 70th minute.

"I think in extra time we would have had the advantage, but they scored in the last minute. We played too much on the wings. We should have used [David] Alaba and Casemiro more. It didn't go the way we wanted.

"It's not the worst game of the season. It was even until the end. I'm not surprised with how the game went."

Even as Madrid's attack laboured, Ancelotti left Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and Luka Jovic on the bench, his only changes being Isco for Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga for Vinicius Junior.

It was put to Ancelotti that the trio were being punished by being kept among the substitutes, but he replied: "I have nothing to say. Nobody is punished. [Dani] Ceballos and [Jesus] Vallejo didn't play, either. They're at the same level as the others who didn't play. You have to be fair.

"Kroos was taken off due to fatigue, as was Vinicius. We were thinking of changes for extra time and there wasn't time."

Madrid's next match is at home to Granada in LaLiga on Sunday.

Karim Benzema has been left out of Real Madrid's squad for the Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic Bilbao on Thursday due to a hamstring injury. 

The fitness of France international Benzema has been a source of concern since he hobbled off in the second half of Madrid's 2-2 draw with Elche in LaLiga on January 23. 

During his pre-match news conference, Carlo Ancelotti was hopeful the striker, who has been in sensational form this season with 24 goals in 28 games in all competitions, would be fit for the trip to San Mames but insisted no risks would be taken. 

Benzema's name was not in the 22-man squad for the match against Athletic that was released later on Wednesday, prompting concerns about his fitness for the Champions League last-16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in less than two weeks. 

Mariano Diaz and Ferland Mendy also miss out through injury, while Marcelo is ineligible due to suspension. 

However, Marco Asensio could make his return from a hamstring injury sustained in the Supercopa de Espana success against Barcelona 

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has said Karim Benzema could be fit for Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic Bilbao at San Mames, but warned he will not be risked unnecessarily.

The France striker – who sustained a hamstring strain in the 2-2 draw with Elche on January 23 – will train with his team-mates on Wednesday, according to Ancelotti, but the coach said he will only play if he is at "100 per cent".

Benzema has been in excellent form for the LaLiga leaders, scoring 24 goals and assisting a further nine in 28 appearances in all competitions this season.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of Thursday's game, Ancelotti said: "We don't know yet [if Benzema will play], because he's only been able to do individual work.

"He has good feelings, and now he is going to train with the group. At the end, we will make a decision. We're not going to risk it. If he has the medical discharge, he will play; if not, no."

Asked again about Benzema, Ancelotti reiterated: "The decision is simple. If he is well, he will play; if not, he will stay at home. If he is not 100 per cent, it makes no sense to put him in a game that is going to demand a lot from us."

The Italian also suggested his South American players may be able to play some part, despite only now returning from international duty after yesterday's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers.

Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo both played in Brazil's 4-0 win against Paraguay, with Casemiro an unused substitute, while Federico Valverde featured in Uruguay's 4-1 win against Venezuela. Eder Militao was allowed to return to Madrid by Brazil a few days early as he was suspended for the Paraguay game.

"We also have to assess the status of the players who have played with their national teams," Ancelotti added. "If they are just tired, they will travel. They may not start the game, but I may need them throughout the game, especially if we get to extra time.

"Vinicius and Rodrygo come back from playing, but they are 20 years old, not 60 like me. I think they can get back."

Madrid have faced Athletic three times already this season, twice in the league and once in the recent final of the Supercopa de Espana, with Los Blancos winning all three – including a 2-1 victory at San Mames just before the mid-season break.

"It's a very important match," Ancelotti added. "It's a competition in which we are very excited. It is a difficult match, against a strong opponent and a very difficult environment such as San Mames.

"We've played well the previous three games against them, but it will be a very close game. To win in San Mames, you have to get the best"

Ancelotti said he still did not know if he was going to start Thibaut Courtois or Andriy Lunin in goal, but a more pressing selection issue will be a left-back, with both Ferland Mendy and Marcelo unavailable.

"There are two options, [David] Alaba or Nacho," he said. "I've already decided, but I'm not going to say it.

"The evaluation does not depend on whether Nico Williams or [Alex] Berenguer plays. Nacho is more defensive and less used to it. Alaba gives us a lot of options with the ball and he's used to playing there."

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.

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