Benzema may overshadow the Ronaldo v Neymar show: Champions League talking points

Ian Hawkey looks at four talking points ahead of the Uefa Champions League last-16 matches on Tuesday and Wednesday

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema reacts after failing during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Levante and Real Madrid at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
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Benzema’s Bernabeu blues

Loud, scornful jeers, laced with shrill whistles spread across the Bernabeu stadium late on Saturday. Real Madrid, who had waltzed to 4-0 half-time lead in their comfortable victory over Real Sociedad, were in utter command of the game, back on winning form in a league campaign of lurching inconsistency.

So why the derision?

It was specifically targeted. Karim Benzema had just fluffed a shot at goal, from fairly close range. He had earlier hit the Sociedad post. Madrid scored five times on the night and their No 9 had none of them.

In fact, Benzema registered the last of his two league goals this season back in November. He is in a deep trough and supporters are on his back.

Benzema still has important allies. Cristiano Ronaldo, who regards the French striker as his favourite partner in attack, put his finger to his lips in a gesture of silencing the jeerers.

Manager Zinedine Zidane, who has a close, guiding relationship with his French compatriot, heard the scorn. “People who come to the stadium can do what they want," he said, "and, yes, he did have chances to score and couldn’t convert them.

"The important thing is that he focuses on the next match to change this run.”

That sounds like a conviction Benzema will keep his place in the XI for what has become the make-or-break tie of Madrid’s season, starting on Wednesday in Spain against Paris Saint-Germain. Madrid and Zidane cling to the prospect of a third Uefa Champions League on the trot, with the defence of their Primera Liga title forlorn, and having tumbled out of the Copa del Rey.

It is the glamour tie of the round.

It will be heavily billed as Ronaldo versus Neymar, but no player is under as much scrutiny as Benzema. Among the huge French audience tuning in, Benzema stimulates as strong opinions as he does among madridistas.

Benzema won the first of his 81 caps for France as a teenager. He won the last of them in 2015, since when he has twice lifted the European Cup. Les Bleus have elected to do without a gifted penalty-box prowler first because of off-the-field issues and more recently because of a bad falling-out with France manager Didier Deschamps.

Do France miss him? They did, but since the emergence of PSG prodigy Kylian Mbappe as an explosive finisher, less so.

In Mbappe, the €150 million (Dh675m) wonderkid, Benzema can glimpse what he used to be.

Soccer Football - Serie A - Chievo Verona vs Juventus - Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi, Verona, Italy - January 27, 2018   Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon and Wojciech Szczesny during the warm up before the match    REUTERS/Alberto Lingria

Kane against the Turin Wall

"Fantastic, amazing," Mauricio Pochettino purred about his Tottenham Hotspur team's performance in winning the North London derby 1-0 at the weekend.

As ever, he praised centre-forward Harry Kane, whose headed goal against Arsenal settled the outcome. Spurs will take on Juventus on Tuesday night buoyant and looking stylishly efficient.

But, caution. If anyone can arrest this momentum, it is the Juventus backline.

Gianluigi Buffon, who turned 40 last month, is marshalling a defence that has not conceded a goal in more than 11 hours of football. A 2-0 win at Fiorentina extended their run of consecutive clean sheets to seven matches.

Between them Buffon and his deluxe back-up keeper Wojciech Szczesny have let in just one goal in Juve’s last 16 contests.


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Basel braced

On paper, it looks the mis-match of the round. Of the nine countries with clubs left in the Champions League, Switzerland’s league is ranked the lowest by Uefa. And Basel are not even top of it.

Heading their way are the Premier League's runaway leaders, Manchester City.

Basel have sold key players this winter, too, and the occasion will stir happy memories for City manager Pep Guardiola. It was in Basel that a 37-year-old Guardiola - barely two months into his first job as a senior coach - first flexed his muscles in Champions League management.

He took Barcelona there in October 2008 and won 5-0. Guardiola’s Barcelona lifted the European Cup eight months later.

epa06494778 FC Porto's Vincent Aboubakar celebrates after scoring the 3-1 lead during the Portuguese First League soccer match between FC Porto and Sporting Braga at Dragao stadium in Porto, Portugal, 03 February 2018.  EPA/JOSE COELHO

African All-Stars at the Dragao

Going into the weekend, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, the Egyptian and Senegalese speedsters of Liverpool had scored 37 of the club’s goals this season.

Meanwhile, Porto’s attacking trio of Vincent Aboubakar, of Cameroon, Moussa Marega, of Mali, and Yacine Brahimi, of Algeria, have reached 50 goals combined.

Anybody who spent this new year regretting there was no Africa Cup of Nations to watch – the event has now moved to a June slot from 2019 – can at least see a very high concentration of the continent’s best attacking talent in Porto versus Liverpool.