Real Madrid leapfrogged Barcelona at the summit of LaLiga as goals from Karim Benzema, Federico Valverde and Rodrygo sealed a 3-1 triumph in El Clasico on Sunday.

Barca had conceded just one goal in eight league games this season prior to the visit to the Santiago Bernabeu, but two clinical finishes from Benzema and Valverde saw them two goals down at the interval.

Xavi's side pulled one back with seven minutes remaining through Ferran Torres, but the hosts restored their two-goal advantage in stoppage time courtesy of Rodrygo's penalty.

The result marked Barca's first league defeat of the campaign, with victory for Los Blancos moving them three points clear of their great rivals at the top of the table.

Madrid went ahead in the 12th minute when Benzema fired home from 12 yards via a deflection from Sergi Roberto after Marc-Andre ter Stegen had raced off his line to deny Vinicius Junior.

Barca were presented with a golden opportunity to restore parity in the 25th minute, yet a stretching Robert Lewandowski somehow managed to scoop the ball over the crossbar from just a few yards out following Raphinha's cross.

Xavi's men were punished for that miss 10 minutes before the interval when Valverde whipped into Ter Stegen's bottom-right corner from 20 yards.

Benzema thought he had scored a wonderful second shortly after half-time, but his curled effort from 20 yards was ruled out for offside.

Substitute Torres reduced the deficit with a simple finish at the back post after superb work from Ansu Fati, yet Rodrygo wrapped the win up for Madrid from the spot after he had been tripped by Eric Garcia – the decision given following a VAR review.

 

Real Madrid great Raul ranks Clasico rivals Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski alongside Erling Haaland as the best strikers in world football.

And with the campaign's first meeting between Madrid and Barcelona coming on Sunday, Raul hopes Benzema will outdo Lewandowski at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.

Madrid and Barca are level on 22 points in LaLiga after eight matches, with an enthralling title race seemingly in store after Los Blancos triumphed by 13 points last term. 

The arrival of Lewandowski has been key to Barca's re-emergence, with the Poland international scoring nine times in his first eight outings in LaLiga.  

Lewandowski's ominous start to life in Spain suggests he is likely to surpass Benzema's league-high tally of 27 league goals from last season.

Raul is full of admiration for both players, ranking them alongside Haaland – the leading scorer in Europe's top five leagues with 20 goals already to his name for Manchester City – but naturally Madrid talisman Benzema will get the 45-year-old's backing.

"They are possibly the best strikers, with Haaland. They are the ones who have the most scoring ability and contribute the most to their teams," said Raul, who is now head coach of Real Madrid Castilla.

"Lewandowski is a great signing for LaLiga, he is showing his quality. But I hope that the battle of scorers on Sunday will be won by Benzema.

 

"I see it as a very exciting game, as always. They both arrive with the same points. It's too early [to judge], because it's in October. Whoever wins will be able to come out stronger mentally. 

"It will be a very demanding game and Madrid, playing at home and being with their people, have a bit of favouritism."

Benzema overtook Raul to go second in Madrid's all-time scoring charts in August, though his tally of 327 goals remains some way short of Cristiano Ronaldo's record haul (450). 

Meanwhile, Raul's 15 goals in meetings between Madrid and Barcelona has only been bettered by three players – Lionel Messi (26), Alfredo Di Stefano and Ronaldo (both 18).

With Raul cutting his coaching teeth in Madrid's youth system, his ambition is to take charge of the senior side in a future Clasico.

He added: "I would like to, but now I am very happy where I am, working with my boys. 

"I am happy and I am going to enjoy it as a fan, wanting us to achieve those three points that will not define anything, but will give more confidence and morale to the winner."

Both teams have Champions League fixtures to focus on before Sunday's meeting, with Madrid facing Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday before Xavi's men host Inter the following day.

Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly prepared to activate the €150million release clause in the contract of Milan forward Rafael Leao.

Leao, 23, has emerged as one of the top attacking players in the Serie A since arriving for €35million back in 2019, tallying a career-high 14 goals in all club competitions in the 2021-22 season before starting this campaign in blistering form.

The Portuguese star with 11 international caps has four goals and four assists from his first eight league games, as well as three assists from three Champions League fixtures, and it seems Paris Saint-Germain have seen enough to justify a substantial investment.

TOP STORY – PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN TO PULL THE TRIGGER ON MASSIVE LEAO RELEASE CLAUSE

French outlet Media Foot is reporting Paris Saint-Germain will return with bids for multiple big names they were unable to land in the past transfer window, and they could come in January.

The report mentions Paris Saint-Germain sporting director Luis Campos was responsible for bringing Leao to Lille in 2018, and as a result he has been monitoring the young talent for years.

With the futures of Lionel Messi and Neymar uncertain, Leao could represent the future of the club going forward, with Kylian Mbappe, and he is not the only big-money target mentioned in the report.

Paris Saint-Germain are said to also be returning with another offer to Inter for Milan Skriniar, and remain interested in Manchester City's Bernardo Silva.

ROUND-UP

– Sky Sports Germany is reporting Real Madrid have plans to replace Karim Benzema with City star Erling Haaland in 2024.

– According to The Independent, Manchester United are only going to make a move for one of Jude Bellingham or Frenkie de Jong, with the target yet to be decided.

– Liverpool's Naby Keita is a target for Barcelona, with the 27-year-old's contract set to expire at the end of this season.

– The Daily Mail is reporting Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli is demanding his wages be tripled before he agrees to a new contract.

– According to The i, Newcastle United are preparing bids for Leicester City midfielder James Maddison and Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby.

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti expects goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to return from injury in time for Sunday's Clasico clash with Barcelona.

Madrid ruled Courtois out for an undetermined period at the start of the month when they revealed he was suffering from sciatica.

That came shortly after the most recent international window, meaning Courtois has not played for Madrid since the 2-1 win at Atletico Madrid on September 18.

He has missed three games in all competitions and will also be absent when Madrid go to Warsaw to face Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Tuesday.

But crucially, Ancelotti's first-choice goalkeeper is predicted to be ready for Sunday's top-of-the-table duel with Barca at the Santiago Bernabeu.

"Courtois is much better," Ancelotti said on Monday.

"The plan is for him to start training on Thursday and be ready for Sunday. We have spoken with him and he is much better."

While Courtois will not feature in Poland, Karim Benzema is set to start.

The Frenchman was out for three weeks after sustaining a thigh injury in the Champions League win over Celtic last month before returning in the 1-1 draw with Osasuna on October 2.

Ancelotti acknowledged prior to the 1-0 weekend win over Getafe that Benzema was "a bit tired" and proceeded to leave him out for the short trip, but he will be back on Tuesday.

"Karim is fine and it's clear that tomorrow he starts, with [Toni] Kroos and [Ferland] Mendy, who are fresh and are going to play," Ancelotti said.

But Vinicius Junior, who has started all of Madrid's 12 games in all competitions this season, could be due a rest.

"Vini is one of the players that I have to evaluate because he has played everything before this trip. We have to evaluate him."

Carlo Ancelotti acknowledges Karim Benzema is "a bit tired" following his return from injury, but has refused to rule out using the striker when Real Madrid face Getafe on Saturday.

Benzema missed three weeks after sustaining a thigh injury in the Champions League win over Celtic last month, returning to Los Blancos' side for last week's 1-1 draw with Osasuna.

The France striker crashed a late penalty against the crossbar in that match as Madrid dropped points for the first time this season in LaLiga, and also failed to impress in Wednesday's 2-1 Champions League win over Shakhtar Donetsk.

Benzema failed to score despite recording eight shots totalling 0.93 expected goals (xG) in that contest, and Spanish media reports had suggested he was doubtful for the trip to Getafe.

However, Ancelotti insists Benzema has not been ruled out of Saturday's game, saying: "Benzema has played two full games after being out for a month, he's a bit tired. 

"He's not ruled out. If he's fine tomorrow, he can play. I see the usual Karim, we don't have to worry. 

"It may be that he rests in Getafe, we'll see, we don't want to force anything."

Ancelotti revealed only two players had asked him for a rest during his long coaching career, adding: "The players are not so honest when they are tired. 

"I prefer that they tell me that they are loaded and avoid injuries, but it has only happened to me twice in 30 years: Pepe and [Clarence] Seedorf." 

If Benzema does feature on Saturday, he will look to extend a fine run of form on the road. The Ballon d'Or favourite has scored nine away goals in LaLiga in 2022, more than any other player, finding the net in six of his last nine away appearances.

Ancelotti offered a positive update on the fitness of Thibaut Courtois, who has missed Madrid's last two games due to a hernia issue, confirming he should be available for next week's Clasico meeting with Barcelona.

"Courtois is improving from his inflammation, it's getting better," he said. "We'll see if he gets to Warsaw [to face Shakhtar on Tuesday], but he'll be safe in the Clasico."

Ancelotti was also asked about the future of midfielder Toni Kroos, who is yet to sign an extension to his Madrid contract, which expires next year.

The Italian coach is relaxed about the situation, though, adding: "Kroos never gets angry, he never feels the pressure. Sometimes I ask him if he's nervous, and he always says no. 

"The renewal is in his hands, if he wants to renew, Real Madrid will be very happy."

Sadio Mane has backed Karim Benzema to win this year's Ballon d'Or, stating Real Madrid's talisman "easily deserves" football's greatest individual accolade.

Benzema had an outstanding 2021-22 season, helping Madrid win LaLiga and the Champions League, with Los Blancos defeating Mane's Liverpool in the final.

Since the start of last season, Benzema has scored 48 goals and provided 16 assists in all competitions for Madrid. In the same time, only Kylian Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski (both 50) have netted more times.

The France striker also overtook Raul as Madrid's second-highest goalscorer, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo.

Now at Bayern Munich after leaving Liverpool, Mane has also been shortlisted for the Ballon d'Or.

He played a key role in Senegal winning the Africa Cup of Nations, while also propelling Liverpool to EFL Cup and FA Cup triumphs, though the Reds fell just short in Europe and in the Premier League.

After scoring one and setting up another in Bayern’s 5-0 rout of Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League on Tuesday, Mane was asked who he believes should scoop the prize.

"[Benzema's] had a great, great season with Real Madrid, he's won the Champions League... I think he easily deserves it, so I'm happy for him," Mane told reporters.

"I know I won the Africa Cup of Nations, it was a relief for me and for the whole country, and I'm really happy to have won my first AFCON with my country. But I think it's Karim who deserves it, and I honestly believe that."

Madrid legend, Jorge Valdano spoke to MARCA radio on the matter. 

He said: "There is no other name for the Ballon d'Or after an extraordinary season. [Benzema] played football of exceptional quality and he has added goals and leadership.

"He who is intelligent evolves in all aspects and he is the best example."

The 2022 Ballon d'Or ceremony will take place on October 17 in Paris. 

Carlo Ancelotti refused to single Karim Benzema out for criticism after the striker's penalty miss saw Real Madrid drop points in LaLiga for the first time this season against Osasuna.

Despite Benzema's return from a three-week injury lay-off, Madrid produced a disjointed performance on Sunday, squandering a first-half lead when Kike Garcia cancelled out Vinicius Junior's fortunate opener.

Benzema had the chance to fire Madrid to a seventh consecutive league victory when David Garcia was sent off for a push on the striker six yards out, but the France star crashed his spot-kick against the crossbar.

Osasuna's 10 men held on for a point in comfortable fashion thereafter, and Benzema has now missed three penalties against Jagoba Arrasate's team in LaLiga this year.

Ancelotti refused to blame Benzema for the result, however, and insisted Madrid had not performed badly, telling DAZN: "Karim usually scores. 

"The match wasn't spectacular, but after the goal we conceded, the team played as it had to play. 

"Karim had no problems starting to play 90 minutes. He has to get in the best shape by playing. 

"It's a footballing accident that can sometimes happen. We've been quite solid at the back, we had a good balance, we hardly conceded any counter-attacks."

Osasuna have now claimed three draws against Madrid since the start of the 2020-21 campaign, more than any other team in LaLiga.

Madrid's failure to find a winning goal means they remain behind Barcelona on goal difference at the summit, and midfielder Dani Ceballos says they lacked dynamism in Sunday's draw. 

"We wanted the three points, we tried until the end, but we have lost two points," he said. "We improved in the last minutes, but we have not been able to get the victory.

"We were not good facing the goal, nor with the ball, we lacked a bit of dynamism. We have another game on Wednesday [against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League] to face in a good way."

Real Madrid saw their perfect start in LaLiga halted by 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, as Karim Benzema missed a late penalty on his return from injury in a dramatic 1-1 draw.

Injuries to Luka Modric and Thibaut Courtois left Madrid depleted at the Santiago Bernabeu, but they took the lead in fortunate fashion when Vinicius Junior's cross beat Sergio Herrera.

Courtois' replacement Andriy Lunin was caught out by Kike Garcia's header as Osasuna equalised shortly after half-time, but the hosts were awarded a penalty when David Garcia pushed Benzema, earning himself a red card.

However, Benzema hammered his spot-kick against the crossbar as Osasuna clung on, ending Madrid's 100 per cent record in LaLiga this season.

Osasuna gave as good as they got during a frantic opening, twice going close through tricky winger Abde Ezzalzouli on the break.

Benzema almost opened the scoring in spectacular fashion from Vinicius' cross after 37 minutes, clipping the left-hand post with an acrobatic volley, but Madrid did not have to wait long for their opener.

Vinicius' in-swinging cross evaded Benzema before nestling in the bottom-right corner after 41 minutes, with a VAR review awarding the goal after ruling Benzema was not interfering with play from an offside position.

Osasuna needed just five minutes to level after the break, however, as Kike's glancing header looped beyond Lunin to find the top-left corner, stunning the Bernabeu into silence.

Just as Madrid appeared to be running out of ideas, Garcia's clumsy foul on Benzema saw the defender dismissed and handed the France striker the chance to win the match with 11 minutes left.

However, the Ballon d'Or favourite stuck the bar with a poor effort before heading Rodrygo Goes' stoppage-time cross wide as Osasuna held on.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is convinced Karim Benzema will be awarded the Ballon d'Or later this month.

Benzema played a talismanic role as Madrid won LaLiga and the Champions League last season, scoring 44 goals in 46 appearances in all competitions.

The striker has already hit the net three times in four league games this season, and is set to return from a three-week injury absence against Osasuna on Sunday.

The next winner of football's most prestigious individual honour will be announced on October 17, and Perez is in no doubt as to who will receive it.

"Benzema has already received the UEFA best player of the year award and in the coming days, he will be awarded the Ballon d'Or," Perez said, in comments carried by Mundo Deportivo.

"No one doubts it."

Benzema's recent absence has failed to prevent Madrid from making a perfect start to their title defence, winning their first six games of the season in LaLiga.

Los Blancos are the only team in Europe's top five leagues to have maintained a 100 per cent winning record this campaign, and Perez has been delighted by their form.

"We have a squad to keep dreaming of all the challenges and challenges that will come. Real Madrid does not allow complacency or relaxation," he added.

"After winning the European Super Cup, we have won all the games we have played, being the only club in the five major leagues that has achieved it. This is the path."

Carlo Ancelotti has confirmed Karim Benzema will start against Osasuna on Sunday and backed the Real Madrid captain to get back to his "spectacular" best.

Benzema has been sidelined for three weeks due to a knee injury but will be in action in the champions' first LaLiga game after the international break at Santiago Bernabeu this weekend.

The France striker has scored four goals in six appearances for Los Blanco this season after an outstanding 2021-22 campaign.

Benzema found the back of the net a staggering 44 times last season as Madrid secured a famous Champions League and LaLiga double. 

Head coach Ancelotti expects the Ballon d'Or favourite to hit those heights again after recovering from an early-season injury setback.

"Benzema is doing very well, he is going to start the game," he said. "He's been with the team all week. His physical condition is good because he was able to recover well and then work well."

When it was put to Ancelotti that Benzema has not looked the same player he was last season, the Italian replied: "Well it's true he didn't score in the last few games – he didn't score because he didn't play.

"There is nothing different with Karim, he's been training very well. Maybe if he didn't have a problem in pre-season, he would not perform this way, but after this injury and time, he didn't play. I'm absolutely sure we are going to see the same Karim Benzema we saw last season, a spectacular player."

Ancelotti revealed midfielder Luka Modric will not face Osasuna and could also miss the Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday.

He said: "Modric has a minor injury, not a very serious one. I'm not sure he will make it for Wednesday. He will train on Monday, let's see how he feels. If not fit for Wednesday, he will play next weekend [at Getafe]."

Ancelotti plans to make full use of the options at his disposal with such a hectic schedule to come ahead of the World Cup.

"It's an important moment, with many games in a short time," he said. "League, Champions [League]... We have to think that rotating would be important, because we play every three days. Everyone will give and put in their quality and commitment."

Real Madrid were among the contenders chasing Erling Haaland's signature over the off-season.

Los Blancos, along with Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, were keen on the former Borussia Dortmund forward.

Ultimately, the Norwegian decided to join Manchester City, starting on fire with 14 goals in 10 games in all competitions, but Madrid are keeping an eye on him.

TOP STORY – MADRID PLANNING LONG-TERM MOVES FOR CITY DUO

Spanish giants Real Madrid are plotting moves to sign Manchester City pair Joao Cancelo and Erling Haaland, reports AS.

Madrid will attempt to sign the 28-year-old Portuguese full-back in mid-2023, with Cancelo contracted until 2027, although the report claims he will cost around €40-50million (£35-44m).

The Spanish champions are planning a swoop for Haaland but not until 2024, with Karim Benzema in the twilight of his career.

Haaland reportedly has a termination clause in his City contract worth €180m (£158m) up until 2024.

ROUND-UP

– The Daily Star reports that Manchester United and David De Gea are set for key talks on his future, with the goalkeeper's contract expiring in mid-2023. United hold an option to extend his stay.

Manchester United may struggle in their bid to sign Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, with the Villans to turn down any offer for him in January, claims Football Insider.

Barcelona are keen to sign Wolves 25-year-old midfielder Ruben Neves as a long-term replacement for 34-year-old Sergio Busquets, reports Sport. Neves will be the Blaugrana's top target at the end of this season.

Gerard Pique is not interested in joining Atletico Madrid in January, claims Sport. The defender has fallen out of favour at Barcelona, but he is determined to fight for his spot.

– Calciomercato claims that Chelsea are interested in Inter wing-back Denzel Dumfries. The Italian club may be willing to part with the Dutchman for approximately £44m.

– Colombian forward Luis Muriel is ready to leave Atalanta, with a move to Fiorentina on the cards, according to Calciomercato.

– PSV striker Cody Gakpo is likely to have more offers in January with Manchester United, Southampton and Everton all still interested, claims Football Transfers.

Thomas Tuchel is Real Madrid 's preferred replacement for Carlo Ancelotti, according to El Nacional. The Italian has told the club he does not intend to manage Madrid beyond this season.

Jude Bellingham is attracting plenty of admirers with his impressive performances for Borussia Dortmund and England.

The 19-year-old midfielder joined Dortmund from Birmingham City in 2020.

Bellingham is contracted until 2025, but clubs are queueing up to sign the young prospect.

TOP STORY – BLUES JOIN QUEUE FOR BELLINGHAM

Chelsea are the latest club to join the race to sign Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham, reports the Telegraph.

Fabrizio Romano claims that Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Manchester United along with the Blues are all pursuing a deal for the teenager.

Romano reports that Dortmund are not in talks with any clubs yet, instead deferring any discussions and decision on a price tag until after the 2022 World Cup. The Telegraph claims that Bellingham will cost around £130 million (€145m).

ROUND-UP

– The Daily Mail reports Manchester City want assurances from Bernardo Silva that he will not push for a move at the end of this season following links with Barcelona during the last transfer window. City are said to be planning talks with Silva in the coming months.

– Barcelona are interested in Ilkay Gundogan, who has less than a year remaining on his Manchester City contract, reports Sport. The German midfielder, who turns 32 in October, has been with City since 2016.

– Karim Benzema and Real Madrid are close to agreeing to an extension on his contract, locking him down at the club until 2024, reports Italian journalist Nicolo Schira.

– Tuttosport claims Milan have offered Rafael Leao an improved contract worth €6million per season plus bonuses, as they attempt to fend off interest from Chelsea and Manchester City.

– The Sun claims Arsenal will make a January move for Aston Villa midfielder Douglas Luiz after failing in an attempt to sign him on deadline day.

– Socceroos 18-year-old forward Garang Kuol has flown to England to sign with Newcastle United having reached an agreement with his Australian club Central Coast, claims Fabrizio Romano. Sky Sports reports that Kuol will be loaned out in January.

Karim Benzema is "feeling very good" and is ready to play a part in Real Madrid's next match after returning to training on Wednesday.

The France striker missed Madrid's last three matches prior to the international break with a knee injury and played no part in his country's two Nations League games.

However, Benzema has recovered from the injury sustained against Celtic on September 6 and is in contention to start Sunday's LaLiga clash against Osasuna.

"I'm pleased to be back with the team," he told the club's official website. "It's been some time [away] and I've had time to do a pre-season. 

"I'm feeling very good, comfortable. I'm looking forward to the game on Sunday.

"I've been doing a lot of fitness work. I've not touched the ball but I trained for the first time today. I've done a lot of running and strength training over the past few days. 

"I also worked out at home. I was a bit late back from my holidays and I didn't have much time to do a good pre-season, which is why I've done it now and I feel very good."

 

Benzema scored four goals and assisted another in his opening five matches this season prior to hobbling off in the 3-0 Champions League win over Celtic.

Despite being without the 2022 Ballon d'Or favourite, Madrid won all three games in his absence, including a 2-1 victory against Atletico Madrid last time out.

Madrid have won all nine matches they have played this season and Benzema believes a large part of that is down to the squad depth.
 
"The team looks very good to me, perfect," he said. "I've seen the winning all their game, scoring goals and showing their character. We've got a great team.

"It could be said that we've got two teams. There's no difference between those who start the game and those who come on. The team looks very good to me.
 
"We know in our heads that we have to win every game. Every match is important. Everyone wants to beat Real Madrid, but we're in good shape and ready to keep going."

Everything appeared to be heading towards Barcelona and Ousmane Dembele parting on poor terms after a largely unsatisfactory association.

"Either he renews, or we look for an exit," Xavi said in January, fielding the latest in a series of questions about the winger.

With Dembele failing to agree to a new Barcelona contract at the start of 2022, director of football Mateu Alemany was even more forthright, declaring: "He must leave the club immediately."

Fast forward eight months, and the unpredictable attacker has emerged as a key cog in a revitalised Barca side, one tipped to compete with Real Madrid after making an unbeaten start in LaLiga.

Having been in the cold since Euro 2020, Dembele is also back in the France squad for their upcoming Nations League matches, with his sights set on claiming a spot in Didier Deschamps' party for the World Cup in Qatar.

Football loves a redemption arc, and that of Dembele in 2022 is up there with the very best in recent memory.

On the eve of his France return, Stats Perform looks at Dembele's journey from €105million flop to the creative hub of Xavi's side, asking whether a World Cup flourish is next for the winger.

Injury woes and the long shadow of Neymar

Barcelona's failings following Neymar's 2017 move to Paris Saint-Germain have been well-documented, with Dembele long viewed as the ultimate personification of the shambolic recruitment policy during Josep Maria Bartomeu's tenure.

The Blaugrana parted with an initial €105m for Dembele, who recorded 30 goal contributions (10 goals, 20 assists) and created 100 chances in his lone season with Borussia Dortmund.

That substantial fee saw Dembele, a talented yet raw 20-year-old, touted as a replacement for Neymar, a pressure that appeared to weigh heavily on the Frenchman; he needed over seven months to score his first goal in LaLiga, finally finding the net at Celta Vigo in April 2018.

While Ernesto Valverde led Barca to a domestic double in 2017-18, Dembele's own contribution was limited by a series of injury setbacks, which represented a sign of things to come.

 

Dembele made just 17 league appearances and 12 starts in his debut campaign, having been ruled out until January 2018 after suffering a serious hamstring injury within a month of his arrival.

In three of Dembele's first five campaigns at Barca, injuries ruled him out for 100 days or more. Between the beginning of 2017-18 and the end of 2020-21, meanwhile, he started just 36 per cent of the club's league games.

On the rare occasions Dembele did stay fit, meanwhile, his output was negligible in a side increasingly reliant on Lionel Messi's brilliance. Dembele's tally of 17 league goals and 14 assists in his first four seasons hardly represented value for Barcelona's mammoth investment, meaning the winger was considered ripe for a sale as the club's economic position worsened.

From contract rebel to key man: Spearheading the Xavi revival 

Even LaLiga's casual observers must have grown tired of discussions over the economic "levers" being pulled by Joan Laporta's regime. But before the sales of future TV rights and production companies, shifting Dembele was touted as a means by which to balance the books after the January arrival of Ferran Torres.

With a loan move for Adama Traore leaving Barcelona's forward line well-stocked, the message could not have been clearer; if Dembele would not agree to fresh terms, he was surplus to requirements.

But with Traore struggling on his return to Spain and Torres regularly deployed centrally, Xavi decided to utilise Dembele once the January transfer window closed. He was richly rewarded after reinstating him on the right of Barca's attack.

Since Xavi took charge in November 2021, Dembele's 17 assists in all competitions is bettered only by Messi (22) and Kevin De Bruyne (21) among players in Europe's top five leagues, while his 15 LaLiga assists during that time is a team-high.

Dembele also leads Barca's charts for chances created (63), chances created from open play (52) and touches in the opposing box (126) under Xavi in LaLiga, finally combining his menacing dribbling ability with genuine threat and creativity.

 

And Dembele's 68 dribbles completed in that time – also a team-high – show he has not sacrificed the individual skill that attracted Barcelona's attentions five years ago. 

Three months on from Dembele being booed by his own supporters during a Europa League clash with Napoli, Xavi said: "When he has not been involved, we have noticed."

The former midfield maestro was right. Barcelona won two-thirds of the league games Dembele started last season, and 47.8 per cent of those he didn't.

That impact meant Dembele's belated contract renewal, finalised in July, was received with enthusiasm by everyone at Camp Nou, with the winger subsequently going from strength to strength.

The tonic to Deschamps' blues?

If some thought the arrival of Raphinha might threaten Dembele's place in Xavi's side, he has made them eat their words at the start of the new campaign.

Having tallied the most assists (13) and expected assists (9.2 xA) in LaLiga last season, Dembele has recorded four league goal contributions since the August restart (two goals, two assists), forcing his way back into Deschamps' thoughts.

By the end of August, Dembele had been involved in more shots (15) as a consequence of ball carries than any other player in LaLiga, and his dynamic, unpredictable style may be just what Les Bleus require.

 

Dembele was used sparingly at Euro 2020, with Antoine Griezmann preferred alongside Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe as France won just once in four outings. However, it's easy to see why Dembele's ability to hug either touchline might appeal to Deschamps, offering him tactical flexibility when several other options appear compromised. 

Griezmann's lack of game-time at Atletico Madrid has been subject to much debate in recent weeks, while Kingsley Coman is out of France's latest squad through injury. Benzema's own injury scare, meanwhile, will no doubt have sharpened Deschamps' mind on the need for a plan B.

With France failing to win any of their first four Nations League games this time around, Dembele's Barcelona revival may have come at the perfect time.

Should Dembele carry his club form onto the international stage, potentially contributing to the first successful World Cup defence since Brazil's 1962 win, his 2022 will surely go down as one of football's most emphatic comebacks. 

Rodrygo considers Karim Benzema "impossible to replace", but the Brazilian is nevertheless giving his all to fill in for the injured Real Madrid striker.

Madrid's opener came from Rodrygo in their 2-1 derby triumph at Atletico Madrid on Sunday, as Carlo Ancelotti's side kept up their 100 per cent record in LaLiga to top the table heading into the international break.

The Brazil international combined excellently with Aurelien Tchouameni to slot home in the 18th minute, before Federico Valverde made it 2-0 prior to the break.

Atleti fought back through Mario Hermoso's late goal, but it was not enough to inspire a full comeback – with the hosts' scorer subsequently sent off after picking up two bookings in as many minutes.

While captain Benzema is set to return after the international break, Ancelotti has been able to rely on Rodrygo to lead Madrid's line in the France frontman's absence, with the 21-year-old contributing to five goals in his last four LaLiga appearances.

Asked in a post-match interview with Movistar+ how difficult it was to replace Benzema, Rodrygo said: "I've always had confidence, but last season I scored more goals at the end [of the campaign] and now I have scored them at the beginning as well.

"I'm coming off a very good season and I want to continue like this, because I [can get] even better.

"It's impossible to replace Benzema, but I try and I think I'm doing well. I have to say that I do things differently to him, we have changed the style of play."

Defender Dani Carvajal, meanwhile, said Rodrygo had given Madrid "wings in attack", even if Benzema was "fundamental" to Los Blancos.

Madrid have won all nine of their matches this season in all competitions, and they are the only side in Europe's top five leagues with a perfect record.

It marks the third time Madrid have won their first nine games in a single campaign after 1961-62 and 1968-69, when they won their opening 11 games in both campaigns.

"We are very happy. We started the season at 100 per cent, winning everything," Rodrygo said. "We are going into the break wanting to rest, play with our national teams and come back better."

Rodrygo celebrated his opener with compatriot Vinicius Junior, who in the wake of being crudely told to "stop playing the monkey" by a football agent in midweek, was the target of racist chanting from some Atleti supporters outside the Civitas Metropolitano prior to kick-off.

"It's a pleasure to play with him, something very special, without a doubt," said Rodrygo of his team-mate, who played a key role in Valverde's goal, hitting the post after a brilliant run, which enabled the midfielder to tuck home on the rebound.

The match was not without its contentious moments, with Hermoso's second yellow particularly harsh. Having previously been booked for dissent, the centre-back was adjudged to have lashed out at Dani Ceballos, though replays showed it was a questionable decision.

"Very bad taste, we have lost a very important match. We have not been so bad, we have not deserved the defeat, but it is football," Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak told Movistar+.

On Hermoso's red card, Oblak said: "I've seen the video. The referee was very close and I don't know what he saw, but it's his decision and on video it's easier than [live], it's true.

"It didn't have to be yellow, there were still three minutes left and we could have taken advantage."

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