It wasn’t a convincing win but Real Madrid defeated Athletic Club 1-0 on Wednesday night at the Santiago Bernabéu to open a seven-point lead over Atlético at the top of LaLiga (although los Colchoneros maintain a game in hand).
Athletic doesn’t make it easy for anyone — the Basque side entered this match with the division’s best defensive record after conceding 10 goals through 14 matches — but they came up against two of the planet’s most in-form players in Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior, and it was ultimately that duo that made the difference.
The footballing world has spent the last few days squabbling over the Ballon d’Or verdict, but it was interesting to hear Toni Kroos’ take on his podcast.
“It’s absolutely not deserved,” Kroos said of Lionel Messi’s win. “There is no doubt that Messi, with Cristiano, has been the player of the last decade, but this year there should’ve been others ahead of him. For me, Karim would have been the No. 1 if you were really looking for the best individual player of the last year, because I can see from close quarters what an outstanding footballer he is.”
Given the importance voters placed on team success at this past summer’s international tournaments, it’s an intriguing hypothetical question where Benzema would’ve finished had Switzerland not pulled off that preposterous upset of France in the Round of 16 (a match in which Benzema scored a brace, including one that was entirely genius). As it was, Benzema finished a distant fourth.
However, the Frenchman is now doing what we had previously only thought Messi capable of in Spain; with his 12th goal of the league campaign Wednesday to go along with nine assists, Benzema is leading LaLiga in both categories.
And watching Real play has become a more rewarding exercise than sitting down for PSG’s forward line of Neymar-Messi-Mbappé because Benzema and Viní Jr. have developed an understanding that simply hasn’t yet coalesced in Paris.
With Vinícius currently possessing, as Carlo Ancelotti recently said, “something special in his feet,” Real looks to him on the left wing to start the majority of its attacks, and Benzema is never stationed very far away. Watching them combine has been pure poetry this campaign.
It was Vinícius who began the move for Real’s game-winning goal by exchanging passes with Luka Modrić (who’s return ball was one of a few clever backheels from the Croatia captain), before it eventually fell to Benzema for the finish.
Who else but Karim Benzema!His 12th goal of the season pic.twitter.com/GJ8nHrih6s
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 1, 2021
And despite the rugged, organized and effective defensive display from Athletic, you just can’t stop Vinícius from providing the filth right now.
Unpopular Opinion: Vini is currently the best player in La Liga pic.twitter.com/IrFG7wBXVQ— Barnes (@TheKwameBarnes) December 1, 2021
Vinicius pic.twitter.com/N0X7K1zguc— Gafard Gnane (@GafardGnane) December 1, 2021
Real Madrid has an exciting week ahead, beginning with a trip to the Anoeta on Saturday to play third-place Real Sociedad. Next Tuesday, Real hosts Inter Milan needing a win or draw to secure first place in Champions League Group D.