Karim Benzema fully merits the plaudits for a stunning start to the season, according to Real Madrid team-mate Toni Kroos.

Benzema scored Madrid's second goal in a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday and leads LaLiga for both goals (10) and assists (seven).

He has now been directly involved in 22 goals in 15 matches for Madrid in all competitions this season, trailing only Bayern Munich talisman Robert Lewandowski (25 involvements in 17 matches) of players in Europe's top-five leagues.

"I see what Karim does in training and how he plays and deserves every success," Kroos told Movistar.

"But what matters to me is what you win with us. I am happy with my goal but because it helped us win. The individual awards do not interest me much.

"We came from a tough match in the Champions League and at 2-1 you suffer a little. Vinicius has helped us a lot so far, in difficult times too, and I hope he continues like this."

Benzema has now reached 10 goals in 11 of his 13 seasons in La Liga (10 in 2021-22) and only former Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi (15) has scored 10-plus goals in more campaigns in the competition in the 21st century than the French striker.

The 33-year-old Benzema was substituted by Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti with seven minutes left and replaced by Eden Hazard.

Ancelotti felt Benzema could have got more goals – having had one struck off by VAR early in the first half before he netted from close range – but suffered from fatigue in the second half.

"It's quite rare that Karim misses the opportunities we've had," Ancelotti added. "I have removed him because he was tired."

Rayo pulled a goal back through former Atletico Madrid striker Radamel Falcao, who has netted a goal every 67 minutes in LaLiga this season with the best ratio in the competition (five goals after 334 minutes played).

Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois admitted the failure to keep a clean sheet took the gloss of the victory and his team-mates must learn to grind out a victory if they are unable to be prolific in front of goal.

"It was part good and part bittersweet at the end," Courtois said.

"We controlled the game, but in the end they almost ended up drawing. Today the three points were very important. They have pushed and we don't take advantage of our chances to score more goals.

"We managed the game quite well, but in the penultimate corner they almost scored a goal and there we have to improve. The team has shown that it knows how to fight and that we are focused until the end. 

"We have to try to keep a clean sheet and close out the game. It's something we have to change because we have a lot of quality to score more goals."

Karim Benzema continued his fine form in front of goal as Real Madrid went top of LaLiga with a 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.

Toni Kroos put Madrid ahead when he finished off a counter-attack in the 14th minute, the goal awarded after a VAR review having initially been ruled offside.

Benzema's 10th league goal of the season – and ninth in 10 against Rayo – made it two seven minutes before half-time, but Madrid sat back following the restart and Radamel Falcao's response ensured a tense finish.

Rayo could not quite forge an equaliser, though, and Madrid moved two points ahead of Real Sociedad at the summit at least until their trip to Osasuna on Sunday.

Alvaro Garcia had almost given Rayo a shock early lead when he broke clear of the Madrid defence only to send his shot wide, a chance that jolted Carlo Ancelotti's side into life.

Vinicius Junior had the ball in the net, yet the VAR determined Benzema had been offside in the build-up, and the France forward then lifted a shot over the crossbar from a good position before Kroos scored on the break, rifling in from Marco Asensio's cross and this time seeing the technology work in Madrid's favour.

Madrid went into the interval two goals ahead when Benzema got on the end of a superb teasing cross from David Alaba and calmly nudged the ball into the net at the back post.

Ferland Mendy teed up Benzema to curl over just after the hour, but a brief cameo from Falcao – introduced in the 69th minute before departing in the 81st – brought Rayo back into the reckoning as his header from Garcia's cross deflected off Alaba and deceived Thibaut Courtois.

Madrid fans then had their hearts in their mouths at the death when Oscar Valentin saw his shot blocked by Eduardo Camavinga and Kroos crucially cleared his follow-up effort off the line.

Olivier Giroud has questioned why Didier Deschamps did not give France's senior players any advance notice of Karim Benzema's return from international exile.

Real Madrid striker Benzema was named in France's Euro 2020 squad in May following an absence of nearly six years.

He had been frozen out by head coach Deschamps since 2015 after becoming embroiled in a blackmail scandal involving international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema has strenuously denied he was complicit in attempted blackmail.

Looking to bolster his attacking options, Deschamps decided the time was right to bring back Benzema ahead of the European Championship, but Giroud believes the move proved unsettling to France's established way of playing.

Giroud has not featured for France since their last-16 elimination at Euro 2020, when the World Cup winners bowed out on penalties to Switzerland, and it remains to be seen whether the 35-year-old's international career is over.

Addressing Benzema's surprise return, Giroud told L'Equipe: "[It] created a tactical imbalance at the team level and in the way we play. I say this frankly, and without anything against Karim.

"The France team was able to overcome this problem of tactical adaptation much later. We have seen this, especially with the Nations League [which France won in October].

"But it took a long time. Karim quickly changed our way of playing which had been well established with certain offensive profiles for five years.

"The mix didn't work overnight, especially before a competition like the Euros."

Commenting on Deschamps' decision to seemingly spring the selection on the rest of the players, Giroud said: "It was the will of the coach to proceed like that.

"He preferred that it not be heard. I can understand it. Now who am I in his eyes for him to call me first? He is the sole decision-maker.

"But I would have appreciated being warned, that he warned certain senior figures."

Giroud is second on the list of France's all-time leading scorers, netting 46 goals, of which 45 have come during Deschamps' nine years at the helm.

Only Thierry Henry (51) has more goals for France than the former Chelsea and Arsenal forward, who is now at Milan.

He was absent from the squad that won the Nations League, when Benzema and Kylian Mbappe scored in the final against Spain.

"It was a weird feeling, even though I was happy for the guys in front of my TV," Giroud said. "It's hard not to experience that with this squad that I have known for a long time, and with whom I have shared so many beautiful things. Like any sensitive person, I had a twinge in my heart."

Karim Benzema conceded Real Madrid were far from their best in a 2-1 Champions League win over Shakhtar Donetsk that saw them whistled by the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.

Benzema made history for Madrid in the first half as his 14th-minute strike marked Los Blancos' 1,000th goal in the Champions League/European Cup.

However, Fernando equalised for Shakhtar six minutes before half-time, with Alan Patrick also hitting the post for the visitors in the first half.

Only the reflexes of Thibaut Courtois prevented Fernando from giving Shakhtar the lead before the interval, but Madrid were better in the second half, which saw Benzema restore their lead following a neat move involving Vinicius Junior and Casemiro.

The win moved Madrid top of Group D ahead of Sheriff's clash with Inter later on Wednesday.

"The most important thing is the three points. We don't play well and we win," Benzema told Movistar. "Sometimes you can't play well. It's normal that the fans want us to always play well, attack and score goals. We try but it doesn't always work out.

"We play every three days and it is difficult. In the end there are many high-level matches like today. Sometimes you win like this, without playing well but in the end we won."

Karim Benzema conceded Real Madrid were far from their best in a 2-1 Champions League win over Shakhtar Donetsk that saw them whistled by the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.

Benzema made history for Madrid in the first half as his 14th-minute strike marked Los Blancos' 1,000th goal in the Champions League/European Cup.

However, Fernando equalised for Shakhtar six minutes before half-time, with Alan Patrick also hitting the post for the visitors in the first half.

Only the reflexes of Thibaut Courtois prevented Fernando from giving Shakhtar the lead before the interval, but Madrid were better in the second half, which saw Benzema restore their lead following a neat move involving Vinicius Junior and Casemiro.

The win moved Madrid top of Group D ahead of Sheriff's clash with Inter later on Wednesday.

"The most important thing is the three points. We don't play well and we win," Benzema told Movistar. "Sometimes you can't play well. It's normal that the fans want us to always play well, attack and score goals. We try but it doesn't always work out.

"We play every three days and it is difficult. In the end there are many high-level matches like today. Sometimes you win like this, without playing well but in the end we won."

Karim Benzema's double propelled Real Madrid to a 2-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk as they at least temporarily moved top of Champions League Group D.

A woeful defensive error from Shakhtar enabled Benzema to give Madrid the lead in the 14th minute, Los Blancos becoming the first team to reach 1,000 Champions League/European Cup goals.

Shakhtar responded superbly and levelled matters when Fernando powered home their first goal of the group stage.

Yet Madrid were much improved in the second half, and predictably it was Benzema who provided the decisive touch after wonderful build-up play from Vinicius Junior and Casemiro.

Luka Modric could have given Madrid the lead in the fifth minute as he was played in on goal at the end of a well-worked move only to be thwarted by a superb save by Anatolii Trubin.

Alan Patrick offered an early glimpse of Shakhtar's threat when he hit the post with a long-range drive, but the visitors then gifted Madrid their landmark goal in bemusing fashion.

Trubin played a short pass out to Marlon Santos, only for the centre-back to immediately cede possession to Vinicius, who teed up Benzema for a simple tap-in.

Modric was again thwarted by Trubin before Fernando was unfortunate to see an effort deflected wide as Shakhtar continued to pose Madrid problems.

Fernando got the equaliser Shakhtar's response to the goal deserved, lashing a volley beyond Thibaut Courtois from Patrick's chest down, and it needed a fine save from the Belgium international to prevent the same pair from combining to put the visitors ahead before half-time.

But Shakhtar were left to rue their earlier profligacy as Vinicius and Casemiro played a silky one-two before the former again supplied the pass for Benzema to secure maximum points for Madrid with his 61st-minute effort.

Real Madrid are used to making Champions League history, and they wrote another chapter in the competition's record books on Wednesday.

Karim Benzema gave them the lead against Shakhtar Donetsk in the 14th minute at the Santiago Bernabeu, tapping in after Marlon Santos gave possession away to Vinicius Junior in his own box.

The goal may not have been one to live long in the memory, but it was a landmark one as it brought up Madrid's 1,000th in the Champions League/European Cup.

Madrid, who have won the competition a record 13 times, are the first team to reach four figures in the Champions League, and Shakhtar's play at the back in the first half suggested they could add to that tally before full-time in the Group D encounter.

Atletico Madrid are hoping to recover from losing to Liverpool on matchday three with a repeat of their Anfield heroics last March.

Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City will look to take bigger steps towards the last 16, while Real Madrid will go in search of another big win against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Inter can put themselves in a good position to progress, too, although city rivals Milan have got much more of a fight on their hands.

Here are some of the key Opta facts for Wednesday's Champions League matches...

 

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid: Can Suarez improve rotten recent record?

Atletico were winners at Anfield on their last visit as they claimed a 3-2 victory in the last-16 second leg in March 2020. Indeed, Liverpool have only twice beaten Spanish teams at home in 13 attempts in the European Cup and Champions League.

That said, the Marcos Llorente-inspired game last year was one of only two out of 22 at home that Jurgen Klopp has lost in this competition as Reds manager, while Diego Simeone is chasing what would only be the second instance of a third successive away win in the tournament with Atleti.

Luis Suarez will hope to haunt his old side, although recent history is against him: he's only scored one for Atleti in nine Champions League games, and none from open play. Mohamed Salah, meanwhile, needs one more goal to equal Steven Gerrard as Liverpool's top scorer in the competition at Anfield (14).

Manchester City v Club Brugge: Bad omens for Belgian champions

City's 5-1 triumph in Bruges on matchday three took their tally to six wins in seven European games against Belgian opposition, while Brugge are now without a victory over English teams in 13 attempts dating back to February 1995.

Since Pep Guardiola took charge, City have won 80 per cent (20 out of 25) of home Champions League matches, which is the best record for a coach at a single club in the competition among those to take charge of 20 or more. A first win on English soil for Brugge looks unlikely.

Might this be a chance for Raheem Sterling to impress? The England forward has been directly involved in 24 goals in 27 home Champions League games for City, a tally surpassed only by Sergio Aguero (27).

 

RB Leipzig v Paris Saint-Germain: Nkunku could outshine Messi

PSG have only lost one of their past nine away games in the group stage, but that defeat was against RB Leipzig last season. It was the only time in the previous seven meetings with French sides that Leipzig emerged victorious.

He might be enduring a difficult time in Ligue 1, but Lionel Messi has managed three goals in three games in Europe for PSG. His double in the reverse fixture was his 34th in the competition, something only Cristiano Ronaldo (37) can better.

However, perhaps the most in-form player in 2021-22 is Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku, who has been involved in the most open-play sequences ending in a goal (six) among Champions League midfielders this season. And he has four goals of his own from the first three matches.

Real Madrid v Shakhtar Donetsk: Another big win on the cards with Benzema

Madrid's 5-0 win over Shakhtar on matchday three means the past five meetings between these teams have seen an average of 4.6 goals scored per game. In fact, Los Blancos have scored 15 times in five Champions League matches against Shakhtar: that average of three per game is their best figure against a side they have faced on at least five occasions, apart from Galatasaray (3.4 per game).

Shakhtar are one of just three sides yet to score in this season's group stage, but with Madrid having lost three of their previous eight home games in the competition, this could be a good opportunity.

They will need to stop Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, though: they are the two players with the most involvements in shot-ending sequences in 2021-22 (31 and 34, respectively). Plus, Benzema is on a run of 10 goals in 10 home games in the competition.

 

Sheriff v Inter: Nothing shot-shy about Inzaghi's men

Inter ended Sheriff's 11-game unbeaten run in Europe last time out and will now look to secure consecutive Champions League victories for the first time since October 2018.

The Nerazzurri have lost just once in their previous five Champions League away matches, but Sheriff are unbeaten in their most recent five European games on home soil, excluding qualifiers. They've also won the past two.

Inter certainly have the variety to break down Sheriff's stubborn defence. Each of their previous 17 away goals in the competition have come from open play, while their 29 shots in the meeting on matchday three were the most by an Italian side in a Champions League game since at least 2003-04.

Other fixtures:

Borussia Dortmund v Ajax

45 – Ajax's 4-0 win over Dortmund last time out was the biggest victory by a Dutch side over a German team in Europe since November 1976, when Feyenoord defeated Kaiserslautern 5-0 in the UEFA Cup.

8 – Sebastien Haller has been directly involved in more Champions League goals this season than any other player (eight – six goals, two assists). Among debutants in the competition since 2003-04, this is the highest such figure over a player's first four appearances and one more than Erling Haaland managed.

Milan v Porto

3 – Milan are one of just four sides this season to have lost all three group games. They are on a five-game losing run in the competition, the worst such streak in their history.

1 – Since scoring four for Chelsea against Sevilla in December 2020, Olivier Giroud has scored only once in 250 minutes of play in the Champions League.

Sporting CP v Besiktas

5 – Paulinho has been directly involved in three of Sporting's five goals (two scored, one assisted) in this season's Champions League. Their last player to manage more goals and assists combined in a single season was Nani in 2014-15 (six).

10 – Michy Batshuayi has attempted 10 shots for Besiktas in the Champions League in 2021-22 without scoring. Over the first three matchdays, only Inter's Lautaro Martinez (12) had more shots without finding the net.

Real Madrid captain Karim Benzema will miss his first game of the season on Saturday after being left out of the squad for the trip to Elche.

Benzema is being rested, according to Spanish media reports, after playing in every match so far this season.

The 33-year-old French striker has played 1,158 minutes out of a possible 1,170 so far this term, and has hit 11 goals in 13 games across all competitions so far.

Benzema also has eight assists to his name for Madrid in 2021-22, five more than any other player on the team has managed.

He heads the LaLiga scoring charts with nine goals in that competition from just 10 games, but coach Carlo Ancelotti appears convinced that the skipper could do with a break, and assured that Madrid can cope for a game without him.

Elche sit 15th in the table and have lost nine of their last 10 encounters with Madrid in LaLiga, drawing only during this stretch in their last home meeting in the competition, 1-1 last December. They last beat Madrid in March 1978 (3-1).

The home side will be glad there is no sign of Benzema, given he has been directly involved in four goals in his last four LaLiga games against Elche (3 goals, 1 assist), including a brace in the last meeting in March, when he grabbed a stoppage-time winner in a 2-1 home victory.

 

Spanish newspaper Marca reported on its website that Benzema has experienced some discomfort in his instep in recent games, with Ancelotti deciding this was a convenient time to let him take a breather.

Benzema has not scored in his last two games, the 2-1 Clasico win over Barcelona and the midweek goalless draw with Osasuna.

Vinicius Jr, enjoying his best season yet for Madrid, features in the squad for Elche and will be aiming to add to his seven goals across all competitions already this season. The 21-year-old Brazilian has netted at a rate of one goal every 144.29 minutes.

Madrid sit second in LaLiga heading into the weekend, three points behind leaders Real Sociedad but with a game in hand, and on the same 21-point mark as Sevilla and Real Betis.

After the Elche game, Madrid return to Champions League action when they host Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, having beaten the Ukrainians 5-0 in Kiev in their last match in the competition.

Bayern Munich defender Dayot Upamecano said Robert Lewandowski and Real Madrid star Karim Benzema are both worthy of this year's Ballon d'Or.

Lewandowski and Benzema are among the nominees for football's most prestigious individual award – the 30-man shortlist will be whittled down to just three players.

Upamecano is team-mates with Lewandowski at Bundesliga champions Bayern, while he also plays alongside Benzema for World Cup and Nations League holders France.

Asked about Lewandowski and Benzema ahead of Bayern's Champions League fixture with Benfica on Wednesday, Upamecano replied: "Very good question!

"Lewandowski or Benzema, both of them deserve it [Ballon d'Or]. They are the two best strikers in the world. They prove it year after year.

"If Lewandowski wins, I would be very happy for him because he is my team-mate at Bayern. If Benzema wins, I also would be very happy for him."

Prior to Madrid's 5-0 rout of Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, Benzema had been involved in more shot-ending sequences of play (76) than any other player in the Champions League.

In this same period, Lionel Messi (12) was the only player who had recorded more multi-shot involvements than Benzema (10), which captures all instances of sequences where a player is both involved in the build-up and takes the shot.

Meanwhile, Lewandowski has scored five goals in six Champions League appearances against Portuguese opponents, including three against Benfica – no player has ever scored more times against sides from Portugal in the competition.

Bayern are on a record unbeaten run of 19 matches away from home in Champions League (W15 D4), netting 54 goals during this streak since losing 3-0 at Paris Saint-Germain in September 2017. Over a third of their goals in this unbeaten run have been scored by their Lewandowski (19 – 35 per cent).

German giants Bayern's eight unbeaten matches against Benfica in the European Cup/Champions League (W5 D3) is the joint-most by a team against an opponent since the tournament began in 1955 – Bayern versus Spartak Moscow (W5 D3) and Barcelona versus Lyon (W5 D3) have also faced eight times without ever losing.

Since the start of last season, Bayern have averaged more goals (3.2) and have a higher expected goals tally (2.6) per game than any other team in the Champions League. Among teams involved in both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 tournaments, they also have the highest shot conversion rate in this period (18.3 per cent).

Vinicius Junior scored twice as Real Madrid got their Champions League campaign back on track with a commanding 5-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk.

Having suffered a shock defeat by Sheriff last time out in Group D, Carlo Ancelotti's men endured no such difficulties at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.

Sergey Krivtsov's own goal got the ball rolling for the visitors seven minutes before half-time, while Vinicius' quickfire double put them in control after the break.

Further strikes from Rodrygo and Karim Benzema completed the rout as coach Ancelotti claimed his fifth straight victory over Donetsk in this competition.

Despite a bright start at the scene of their 2018 Champions League final triumph over Liverpool, Madrid had a scare in the 23rd minute.

Indeed, Ferland Mendy was forced to clear Ismaily's dangerous cross with Mateus Tete lurking for a tap-in.

But it was the 13-time European champions who hit the front in extremely fortuitous circumstances after 37 minutes, as Lucas Vazquez's hopeful ball towards Benzema was sliced beyond his own goalkeeper by skipper Krivtsov.

Benzema was involved again as Madrid doubled their lead within six minutes of the start of the second half. After Donetsk were caught in possession from a throw-in, the skipper found Luka Modric, whose perfectly weighted first-time ball was delicately finished by Vinicius.

The Brazilian grabbed his second in emphatic fashion just five minutes later.

Receiving the ball from Benzema on the left flank, he embarked on a jinking run into the heart of the hosts' defence before sweeping the ball past Anatolii Trubin.

Vinicius then turned provider in the 65th minute, demonstrating tremendous vision to cut the ball back for Rodrygo to thump into the roof of the net. Benzema completed the scoring with a neat finish in the dying moments of the contest.

Luka Modric believes Real Madrid team-mate Karim Benzema would be a worthy winner of this year's Ballon d'Or, while the midfielder also revealed his opposition to proposed biennial World Cups.

Modric was the first player to end the Ballon d'Or duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi when the midfielder won the prize in 2018 – it ended 10 years of domination by the two superstars stretching back to Kaka's win in 2007.

Of course, Messi won it for a record sixth time in 2019, and 2020 saw the award cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will make a return this year, with a shortlist of 30 candidates having been announced on October 8.

Among them is Benzema, who has elevated himself to another level at Madrid over the past few years, becoming something of a talisman since Ronaldo's 2018 departure for Juventus.

On an individual level, 2021 has arguably been the best year of Benzema's career, with the striker having a hand in 39 goals (28 scored, 11 assisted) across all competitions, a haul bettered by only Kylian Mbappe (43), Erling Haaland (47) and Robert Lewandowski (48) in the top five European leagues.

Benzema has been especially effective at the start of 2021-22, his 17 goal involvements better than anyone in the big five leagues and giving him an average of one every 52.2 minutes – Florian Wirtz (50 mins) and Haaland (50.4 mins) are the only players (at least 270 minutes played) who have been decisive more frequently.

"Let's see what happens," Modric told reporters when asked about Benzema's chances.

"There are several candidates who can win it. Karim is one of them. He deserves to win it because of how he has played this year and because of his career.

"He has always been at a top level and finally he has now won a title [the Nations League] with France, and that's important when it comes to voting.

"I'm sure he's one of the candidates. Hopefully Karim wins it."

It was Modric's role in helping his country get to the World Cup final that ultimately aided his own Ballon d'Or success, with the gifted playmaker winning the Golden Ball for the tournament's best player.

Yet he feels the competition will lose some of its draw to certain fans – including himself – if FIFA goes ahead with proposals to make it a biennial event rather than being hosted every four years.

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, now FIFA's head of global football development, is among the key figures in the governing body's push to canvas opinion on such a change. The proposals have been widely criticised, and with good reason, according to Modric.

"For me, a World Cup every two years does not make any sense, I wouldn't like it," he said. "It's special because everyone expects it every four years.

"The players are not asked much about it, nor are the opinions of the coaches. They try to do things without asking.

"I don't know what will happen. Me being honest, I wouldn't watch the World Cup every two years."

Karim Benzema deserves to become the first French winner of the Ballon d'Or since Zinedine Zidane – and that verdict comes from Zidane himself.

Real Madrid striker Benzema, who has taken over the captaincy since Sergio Ramos joined Paris Saint-Germain, is playing the best football of his career as he approaches his 34th birthday in December.

Zidane has seen that as close quarters, having had two spells as Madrid head coach during Benzema's time at the club.

Although Zidane left Los Blancos at the end of last season, he is firmly in the Benzema camp when it comes to selecting a Ballon d'Or front-runner.

Speaking to TF1's Telefoot, Zidane said: "We're talking about a player who deserves to win this Ballon d'Or.

"He's an incredible player, I had the great honour of coaching him. He knows how to do everything on the pitch. I hope he can be rewarded with this Ballon d'Or. It's the right moment because he's at the top of his game."

 

France international Benzema has been Madrid's attacking spearhead since Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Juventus in 2018 and has risen to that challenge.

He has topped the 20-goal mark in LaLiga in the last three seasons and has nine strikes in eight games so far this term in the Spanish top flight.

Last season, Benzema's 23 league goals came at an average of one every 126.13 minutes. They also came from an expected goals total of 18.81, indicating he is excelling in taking the chances that come his way.

His LaLiga shot conversion rate so far in 2021-22 is 26.47 per cent, higher than he has achieved across any full league campaign since arriving in 2009 from Lyon.

With three LaLiga titles and four Champions League wins in 12 years, Benzema has accrued plenty of silverware while with Los Blancos, much of it during Zidane's time in charge. He also helped France win the Nations League last weekend, scoring a stunning goal against Spain in the final.

Now, individual acclaim may be coming his way, although Benzema faces stiff competition, with six-time winner Lionel Messi rated a favourite for the Ballon d'Or with British bookmakers, having helped Argentina win the Copa America.

Benzema recently said it had been a long-held "dream of mine" to win the coveted award.

Robert Lewandowski's record-breaking 41-goal Bundesliga season last term also puts him firmly into contention, while Jorginho has a strong claim after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

The Ballon d'Or winner will be announced on November 29 at a ceremony in Paris.

Karim Benzema believes the Clasico is still "the best match that exists in football", even with neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo involved for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Benzema's Madrid visit Barca next week to begin a new era in one of the game's most famous fixtures.

After Ronaldo left the capital for Juventus in 2018 – and later rejoined Manchester United – Messi followed his great rival out of LaLiga this year.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner, who had been a first-team player at Barca since 2004, joined Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer when the Blaugrana could not afford to renew his contract.

In the 21st century, only Diego Forlan (10) has scored more LaLiga goals against Barca than Ronaldo (nine). Messi's 18 Clasico goals are the most of any player against Madrid in that time.

Benzema, leading the league for both goals (nine) and assists (seven) in 2021-22, is the outstanding player among those who remain, but he insists the excitement around the match is undimmed.

"For me, it's still the same. It remains the best match that exists in football," he told ESPN.

"It doesn't matter about the players who are there, who have left or who will join. Real-Barca is historic.

"The names change, but before there was [Zinedine] Zidane, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, [Samuel] Eto'o. Real-Barca will always be Real-Barca."

 

Leaders Madrid will undoubtedly be favourites, even in Catalonia. Ahead of the games this week, when Los Blancos are not in action but Valencia visit Camp Nou, Barca are down in ninth.

Benzema is impressively holding the fort as Madrid's main man, but Barca are a little short on quality following Messi's departure amid a dire financial situation.

The Blaugrana's salary cap is only the seventh-highest in the league, a long way behind Madrid's, and doubts remain around Ronald Koeman.

He lost his first two Clasicos last season, becoming the first Barca coach to do so since Joaquim Rife in 1980. Koeman is also three without a win against champions Atletico Madrid, who beat his side before the international break.

But Benzema says: "There's never a good moment to play them. A team like Barca or any top team, they can have a poor game and then bounce back again.

"It's a match that we can't take lightly, even if they haven't played well so far."

Benzema certainly has played well, and he has made the shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d'Or.

In this calendar year, the France international has 28 goals and 11 assists for Madrid in all competitions. Across the top five leagues, only three players – Robert Lewandowski (46), Erling Haaland (45) and Kylian Mbappe (43) – have recorded more involvements than Benzema's 39.

"It's been a dream since I was young and also a motivation – the Ballon d'Or represents the best players in the world and [it is great] to be on the list," Benzema said.

"If you count who's on there, it's very satisfying. It's always been an objective.

"You could say [I am close]. What I've done for the last three to four years, to continue to perform at a high level.

"When I'm playing, I don't think about the Ballon d'Or. I think about helping the team win, providing a spectacle. The Ballon d'Or comes as a result of that, because it's more of an individual focus, but it's all about the collective."

The October international break has provided an opportunity to reflect on the club season so far, with the campaign starting to settle into some sort of pattern.

Paris Saint-Germain have quickly moved clear at the top of Ligue 1, but there look to be genuine title tussles on the cards in the Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga and Serie A.

However, while there are familiar names involved in each league, that does not mean the same individuals are excelling as in previous seasons.

A close-season that saw two of the sport's greats make moves shook things up a little, giving other emerging stars the opportunity to establish themselves at the forefront of the European game.

Studying the best shooters, creators, dribblers and goalkeepers, Stats Perform takes you through the standout statistical performers of 2021-22 so far.

Hotshot Haaland and luckless Lorenzo

There were familiar faces at the top of the shooting charts last season, as Lionel Messi (196 shots) led the way ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo (168). This term, although Ronaldo has hit the ground running, neither rank among the top marksmen.

Kylian Mbappe (35) has had the most attempts, but Erling Haaland is averaging 5.2 per 90. While that is the most among players with 20 total shots or more, it falls short of the 5.8 Messi was mustering last term.

Haaland is certainly making the most of his opportunities, though. From chances worth just 4.77 expected goals (xG), he has produced finishes worth 7.05 expected goals on target (xGOT) – a metric measured after the shot. These efforts have led to seven goals, performing in line with the quality of his finishing.

The Borussia Dortmund man is not outperforming his xG by as much as Karim Benzema, who leads the way in that regard. His nine goals have come from opportunities worth 4.43 xG, although his shots have only accounted for 5.22 xGOT, suggesting poor goalkeeping has also contributed to his success.

Lorenzo Insigne certainly has not encountered any below-par work from opposition keepers. His 27 attempts have been worth 5.5 xG, and he has narrowly surpassed that mark with his xGOT of 5.57. Yet the Napoli captain, third behind Messi and Ronaldo last year with 144 shots, somehow has only two goals.

Just two players in the whole of 2020-21 – Houssem Aouar (seven goals, 10.75 xGOT) and Edin Dzeko (seven goals, 10.58 xGOT) – fell so far short of their xGOT, suggesting Insigne's fortunes must surely change soon.

Benzema benefiting like Kane last year

Bruno Fernandes is one of Europe's best creators and scarcely gets a rest at Manchester United, so it is no surprise to see him figuring high up the rankings for key passes both this season and last. In 2020-21, Fernandes created the second-most chances (95) and the second-most chances from open play (77). This term, he is joint-fifth for total chances created (23).

Eden Hazard is back producing once again, averaging 3.99 key passes per 90 – all from open play. He is third for chances created and first for chances created from open play among those to forge 10 or more opportunities.

But Hazard has only a single assist to his name, not so far as fortunate as Fernandes' team-mate Paul Pogba or his own colleague Benzema.

Pogba has created chances worth just 1.45 expected assists (xA) and Benzema 2.05 xA, yet the pair have seven assists apiece thanks to the fine work of their club-mates. It means Benzema has been involved in 16 goals despite his combined xG and xA making up a mere 6.48. He is a man in top form, but this statistical output does not seem sustainable.

It is Harry Kane's example that Pogba and Benzema are following. His 14 assists led the Premier League last term, but he only actually created chances worth 3.63 xA, far and away the most spectacular disparity as Son Heung-min and Co. boosted Kane's figures.

Messi actually went in the opposite direction, last season creating chances worth 13.37 xA but only being rewarded with nine assists.

Adama dominant with Messi missing

As well as being one of Europe's most prominent shooters and creators, Messi was right at the top for dribbles last term. No player attempted (261) or completed (159) more take-ons. Given Neymar attempted the most dribbles per 90 (11.28) among those with 50 or more attempts, slow starts for two Paris Saint-Germain stars have left a gap in the market.

Unsurprisingly, Adama Traore has stepped into that void. The Wolves winger was next behind Messi for attempts (232) and completions (153) in 2020-21 and now comfortably leads the way (61 and 49). Among those with 20 attempted take-ons or more, Traore is now completing more dribbles per 90 (9.63) than any other player in Europe is even attempting. His success rate is an astonishing 80.33 per cent.

The Spain international has 14 times this season beaten multiple players in the same run and has created six chances immediately after a successful dribble – two more Europe-wide highs.

Traore only ranks joint-second for chances created from all carries, however, his nine trailing Allan Saint-Maximin's 11, with the pair out in front of the rest across various metrics with the ball at their feet.

Oblak off the mark and Keylor kept out

There were two clear outstanding goalkeepers in Europe in 2020-21, as Jan Oblak led the way for goals prevented using expected goals on target data (8.58, having conceded only 25 times excluding own goals) while Keylor Navas had the best save percentage of those to face 50 or more shots on target (80.43). Oblak was second for save percentage (80), with Navas third for goals prevented (8.11).

But both men have slipped below those standards this season.

Oblak has endured a significant wobble, saving only 57.14 per cent of 14 shots and conceding five goals from efforts worth 4.22 xGOT. Navas has a better save percentage of 72.73 but still is not having a positive impact, conceding six from an xGOT of 5.02. He also now looks to have lost his place to Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Going the other way, though, there has been a positive change in fortunes for Aaron Ramsdale, who last year had to make 147 saves – behind only fellow relegated England international Sam Johnstone (166). Since joining Arsenal, Ramsdale has faced just 10 shots on target and saved nine of them, a benchmark save percentage.

Matias Dituro is the standout difference-maker this term, however. Despite conceding 11 times, excluding own goals, since joining Celta Vigo, he has actually prevented 4.05 goals.

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