Karim Benzema saw his number come up. He heard the crescendo of applause as he made his way to the touchline. His work had been done and, after all, he had an important appointment the following day.
His goal, early in the season’s first clasico that put Real Madrid in the ascendency over Barcelona on Sunday, was a fitting way to head off to Monday’s Ballon d’Or ceremony.
His manager, Carlo Ancelotti, was already preparing the congratulations for Benzema being named, in Paris, as the world’s best footballer for the 2021/22 season. “His Ballon d’Or is in a little way ours, too,” said Ancelotti, noting how the Bernabeu crowd had responded to him deliberately bringing Benzema off late in the clasico so they could pay homage to their captain.
After the 3-1 win, Benzema then led Vinicius and Luka Modric, a previous Ballon d’Or, back onto the pitch to cheer the madridistas. “It felt like a Champions League day,” remarked Ancelotti of the exuberant atmosphere.
The victory returned Madrid to the top of la Liga, where they were champions with 13 points clearance over Barca last May. The honouring of Benzema, 34, is a reminder that Ancelotti’s Los Blancos were also thrilling Champions League winners.
There, the French striker scored two hat-tricks among his 10 goals in a dazzling trio of comebacks in the knockout rounds, with Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City eliminated on the way to the 1-0 win over Liverpool in the final.
Those see-saw ties, quite apart from Benzema’s 44 goals in 46 matches across his golden season, are partly why the Ballon d’Or stays a year longer in La Liga’s orbit.
Spanish clubs have supplied the award winners ever since 2008, when the long sequence of Lionel Messi – then of Barcelona – and Cristiano Ronaldo – nine years at Madrid – dominating the game’s most prestigious individual prize began.
For many of those nine years, Benzema played in Ronaldo’s shadow, developing the unselfishness that has made him such a peerless centre-forward; at once an expert finisher and a provider, ever alert to the movements of colleagues.
He has climbed to this peak relatively late in his career – he will not be going on to challenge Messi’s total of Ballons D’Or – seven – or Ronaldo’s – five. But a strong World Cup, with defending champions France, could put Benzema in contention for the next one.
Madrid hope the regular parade of Ballon d’Or wins that boost the image of the club will in time pass to a new generation. After the clasico Toni Kroos, the man of the match, gave special praise to his midfield colleague, Federico Valverde, who had put Madrid 2-0 up by half time. “He’s one of the top three players in the world at the moment,” said Kroos.
Kroos’s ruggedness in shielding the ball from Sergio Busquets and his fine through-ball to Vinicius had set up Benzema’s goal. Valverde’s was a creation of the younger generation, 22-year-old Vinicius the initiator after he seized on an Eric Garcia mistake, 22-year-old Aurelian Tchouameni the fulcrum and 24-year-old Valverde the poised finisher.
Real 3-1 Barcelona: player ratings
Poor Garcia had a difficult 90 minutes at centre-back for Barcelona. He gave away the late penalty for a foul on substitute Rodrygo. The 21-year-old Rodrygo converted the spot-kick.
Young they may be, but this band of Madrid colts were included in the words chosen by Xavi, the Barca manager, to describe the difference between the teams. “Madrid are a more mature side,” he said, meaning they are settled, confident of their strengths. Barcelona by contrast, are “in construction”, according to their young coach.
Xavi has been in charge, in his first senior management job in Europe, less than a year and is still finding the best ways to combine a number of summer arrivals.
“We must reduce mistakes,” sighed Xavi, who four days earlier had seen a Busquets error contribute to a 3-3 draw with Inter Milan that may well have condemned Barcelona to elimination from the Champions League at the group stage. Busquets’s shortcomings against Kroos in the lead-up to Madrid going ahead established a pattern at the Bernabeu.
Barcelona were insipid. They were penalised for just one foul in the first half. That was not a testament to the purity and control of their football, but a lack of aggression – in the fixture that is supposed to celebrate the sport’s fiercest club rivalry.