Carlo Ancelotti emerged with a sense of personal satisfaction after Karim Benzema's two late goals secured a 3-1 win for Real Madrid at Espanyol.

The head coach saw his substitutes come good in the closing stages of the game to pave the way for Benzema's heroics.

Regarded as a humble man, this time Ancelotti was happy to take credit for the decisions that saw him shuffle his Madrid pack in the second half of a hard-fought contest.

He brought off Luka Modric and Federico Valverde in the 58th minute, introducing Eduardo Camavinga and Rodrygo, before replacing Toni Kroos with Dani Ceballos.

Camavinga brought fresh vibrancy to the Madrid midfield, Rodrygo set up Benzema's first goal in the 88th minute, and Ceballos was fouled for the free-kick that led to a red card and Benzema's late clincher.

That final goal of the game came 10 minutes into stoppage time, after a marathon delay for the VAR to resolve the moment when home goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte clattered Ceballos. Lecomte was sent off and home captain Leandro Cabrera, a defender, took over in goal, Benzema taking advantage by firing home from the set-piece. 

"We won the game because of that energy. That of Camavinga, Rodrygo or Ceballos," Ancelotti said. "The game was slow and we changed it. Each game has its own story."

He said it was impossible to know how the game would have flowed had he fielded his substitutes from the start, allowing the likes of Modric and Kroos to come on and change the game in the second half.

"Sometimes team selection is a gamble and today I think the Real Madrid coach has gambled well."

The veteran Italian coach said Madrid had started brightly, as was exemplified by the sharp movement that brought about Vinicius Junior's early goal.

Former Madrid reserve striker Joselu equalised with his seventh goal in nine LaLiga matches against Los Blancos, before Benzema's double provided the late twist.

Three days after picking up the UEFA men's player of the year award, Benzema showed why he is earning such accolades at this stage of his career. He turns 35 in December but shows no sign of slowing down.

Benzema has scored 28 goals for Madrid in 2022 across all competitions, the joint highest of all players from Europe's top five leagues. It puts him alongside Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe, who snubbed a move to Madrid in favour of signing a new PSG deal in May.

In all, Benzema had eight shots, the highest of any player in a single game during the opening weeks of the LaLiga season.

The late show poured salt on Espanyol wounds, with the team from Barcelona having now failed to win in their last 10 league games, going back to last season.

Kroos told Movistar: "It's to be expected that we suffer against a great rival, also away from home. We controlled the game until their goal. We suffered a bit in the second half, but in the last 30 minutes we regained control.

"They looked tired and we took advantage of that. Winning away is not easy and we have done it three times in a row."

Madrid's first three league assignments have indeed come away from the Santiago Bernabeu, while work is carried out on the stadium, and wins over Almeria, Celta Vigo and now Espanyol have made it an ideal start.

Madrid sit top of the table but are joined on nine points by Real Betis, the team they host next Saturday.

Kroos says Madrid are braced for a busy run of games, as the Champions League group stage begins.

He said: "Every three to four days we are going to play against difficult opponents and there are always times when we are going to have to suffer."

Toni Kroos intends to finish his career at Real Madrid, while the former Germany international says he will not reverse his decision to retire from the national team ahead of Qatar 2022.

The veteran playmaker has completed a clean sweep of major honours with the LaLiga giants since arriving from Bayern Munich in 2014, shortly after helping Die Mannschaft to World Cup glory in Brazil.

Yet having hung up his boots for the national side following last year's Euro 2020 last-16 exit at the hands of England, Kroos admits he may well follow suit at domestic level sooner rather than later.

However, he will not be looking to wrap up his time on the pitch anywhere other than Santiago Bernabeu, regardless of time frame.

"I believe that the year 2023 is appropriate [to retire]," Kroos told Bild. "I will be 33 years old.

"I will decide whether I will renew for a season or two. That is still open for discussion, but I am completely sure that I will retire at Real Madrid."

Kroos will not walk back his decision to depart the national team, however, with the 106-cap veteran having no intention of making himself available for Hansi Flick's squad.

"The decision I made at that time stands," he added.

 

Casemiro said the qualities of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric made it "easy" to star in Real Madrid's midfield ahead of his move to Manchester United, as he backed Los Blancos to replace him from within.

The Brazil international is joining United in a deal reportedly worth an initial £60million (€70m), having won an incredible 18 trophies during a nine-year spell with Madrid. 

Casemiro lifted the Champions League on five occasions during his time in the Spanish capital, and produced a masterful performance as Carlo Ancelotti's team clinched their 14th European crown against Liverpool in May.

Modric, Kroos and Casemiro have been key throughout one of the most successful spells in Madrid's history, starting together in four Champions League finals (in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2022), and the 30-year-old admits he will miss the duo.

"All the titles that you win, all the training sessions, the games you play, they make you happy, just realising you are a Real Madrid player," Casemiro said at a news conference on Monday.

"This era, winning five Champions League titles, is a once in a lifetime experience and very special to me, something I'll never forget. 

"Speaking about Kroos and Modric, they're my great friends, and apart from on the pitch I also think about them as two fantastic people and the great friends they've been to me. 

"It's very easy to play alongside them, I don't have much work to do, I will give them all the credit for all the work they have done. Of course, I will miss them a lot.

"It was difficult to talk to them, like it was in my conversation with the president. Toni sent me a message at 4am, asking me if all the rumours were true. 

"I'm really loyal to all of my team-mates, not just these two team-mates, but I have to be sincere with myself. If my time here is over, I have to take a step forward. I'm going to a great club, the biggest in the UK. 

"I will always be a fan, celebrate Real Madrid's goals and titles, which they will continue to win, no doubt about it. Real Madrid players are the best in the world and it's the best club in the world – it will always be like that for me."

With Kroos absent through illness, Madrid fielded a new-look midfield as they made it two wins from two outings in LaLiga by thrashing Celta Vigo 4-1 on Saturday, with Eduardo Camavinga and recent arrival Aurelien Tchouameni joining Modric in the starting line-up.

And Casemiro believes the presence of the two young French talents means Madrid may not need to replace him, adding: "Real Madrid is a club that always signs the best players in the world.

"Aurelien could also do the job, he's the kind of player that Madrid can rely on for many years to come. Toni and Modric will play at this high level but he can be a great asset as well.

"Camavinga already showed us how important he can be as well. Tchouameni is also a player that is very important, in the French national team as well.

"Real Madrid find themselves in a great place right now, they have great players and will continue to win important titles, that's what this club is about."

Casemiro has crowned team-mates Luka Modric and Toni Kroos as "possibly the best two midfielders in the world".

Madrid ran out 2-0 winners over Eintracht Frankfurt in the Super Cup on Wednesday, thanks to goals from David Alaba and Karim Benzema.

Carlo Ancelotti stuck with the same line-up that had started against Liverpool in May's Champions League final, and midfield trio Casemiro, Kroos and Modric turned in a supreme display.

Modric, the 2018 Ballon d'Or winner, completed 53 of 57 passes (93 per cent) and laid on two chances for team-mates in Helsinki, while Kroos enjoyed 120 touches, completed 97 passes and gained possession nine times.

Only UEFA's man of the match Casemiro (10) bettered that latter figure, and the Brazil international also went close to a spectacular goal when he rattled the crossbar from long range on his weaker left foot – that shot was teed up by Modric.

The trio's performances led Carlo Ancelotti to highlight Madrid's experience as a crucial factor in their victory after full-time, and Casemiro knows he is playing with two of the best in the business.

"We know each other just by looking at one another," he told a post-match news conference.

"I've got an easy job, we're talking about Kroos and Modric who are possibly the best two midfielders in the world. 

"There are things in football that cannot be explained, some things just happen in football. I hope we'll continue to be together for a long time to come."

 

While Madrid's thrilling 2021-22 Champions League triumph saw several energetic cameos by young midfielder Eduardo Camavinga, the 14-time European champions have further bolstered that area of the pitch with the recent acquisition of Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco.

Casemiro welcomes the competition provided by the 22-year-old's arrival and has high hopes for the France international.

"It hasn't annoyed me, everyone knows about my character and loyalty for this club, I'll be working in the same way," Casemiro said.

"You only see the 90 minutes but I'll keep making sacrifices, including on the pitch and in training.

"I think Tchouameni is a top player, this club speaks for itself – everybody gives their all. All I can say to him is keep doing what he's doing, keep showing in training and do it out on the pitch."

Real Madrid have not, yet, rounded off their pre-season. Carlo Ancelotti's team do not start their LaLiga campaign until Sunday, when they take on Almeria.

Yet at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, the Champions League holders picked up where they left off just over two months ago – with European glory.

A 14th European crown came their way in Paris back in May, when Vinicius Junior's goal – combined with Thibaut Courtois' heroics – saw off Liverpool.

And on a comfortable summer's night in Finland on Wednesday, Madrid's assortment of superstars claimed the club's fifth Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt, as Ancelotti's decision to stick with the team that won at the Stade de France was repaid in full. 

Eintracht, who defeated Rangers to win the Europa League last term, performed admirably, but shorn of Juventus-bound talisman Filip Kostic, the Bundesliga side could not cope with the power and quality at Madrid's disposal.

Not that it would have definitely been any different with Kostic in the team, as this was a game won mostly in midfield, that is where Madrid exerted their dominance. Though on the occasions when Eintracht did threaten, particularly in the opening 30 minutes when Courtois made two impressive stops, it would be easy to imagine Kostic, who crafted 420 chances, provided 56 assists and scored 30 goals across 167 appearances for the club after joining from Hamburg in 2018, would have helped their cause.

In a pre-match news conference on Tuesday, Luka Modric – 37 next month – was asked if he planned on asking Ancelotti to manage his minutes with the mid-season World Cup in mind. 

"I speak to the coach every day, but not about that. The coach knows I like playing and I feel better when I play," Modric replied. "I'm feeling good, available to the team to give my all to help the team in every way. The World Cup doesn't change anything for me."

Karim Benzema, who scored Los Blancos' second to become Madrid's outright second leading goalscorer after Cristiano Ronaldo, added: "Age does not come into it."

Benzema's statement rang true. Madrid's starting midfield three of Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro had a combined age of 98, yet surely covered every blade of grass between them, both on and off the ball.

Having spent much of the opening stages looking to drop into space and ping searching diagonals out to Vinicius Junior, who along with Federico Valverde and Eder Militao adds the effervescence of youth to the starting XI, Modric grew into the game as it wore on, finding the pockets of space only he can.

 

The Croatian's mercurial talents were on full show early in the second half, after David Alaba had put Madrid ahead – his tap-in having been teed up by a combination of Benzema and Casemiro. 

In the space of five minutes, Modric linked up exquisitely with Benzema to find Ferland Mendy and create a chance for Vinicius Junior to test Kevin Trapp, who was well beaten from the next opportunity Modric teed up – Casemiro rattling the crossbar from the edge of the box.

Modric's race was run after Benzema made it 2-0 with his 324th Madrid goal (only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more), and the playmaker headed for the bench having completed 53 of 57 passes (93 per cent), with two of those leading directly to opportunities, though those statistics do not tell the whole story. He was simply spellbinding at times, deft flicks and quick feet toying with Frankfurt's hopes and dreams.

And what of Casemiro? His tally of nine tackles led the game, with a sliding challenge on Jesper Lindstrom in the 51st minute a highlight.

Kroos, as Kroos does, went about his business efficiently, without breaking stride. He strolled off with five minutes remaining, making way for big-money signing Aurelien Tchouameni having had 120 touches, completed 97 passes and gained possession nine times, second only to UEFA's man of the match Casemiro (10).

 

Ancelotti, who has now won the Super Cup a record four times after previous success with Madrid (2014) and Milan (2003, 2007), was able to change things up late on, with Antonio Rudiger joining Tchouameni for a competitive debut, but 34-year-old Benzema who lasted the duration.

Benzema's goal came from a familiar source. Vinicius found space down the left channel, drilled in a cross and his partner in crime was there to finish it off. The Brazil forward has now assisted Madrid's number nine 16 times. 

It was he, as Madrid's new club captain following Marcelo's departure, who lifted the trophy. If this evidence, with a team still rounding off their preparations, is anything to go by, it will not be the last piece of silverware he lifts this season.

Robert Lewandowski made his debut for Barcelona as they defeated Real Madrid 1-0 in their pre-season friendly in Las Vegas on Saturday.

The 33-year-old had to share the spotlight with Raphinha however, with the latter's lone goal ultimately proving the difference in the 27th minute.

With Xavi also able to take his place on the touchlines after he was allowed entry into the United States, the Blaugrana started close to what could be considered a full-strength starting XI, with Andreas Christensen starting ahead of Gerard Pique.

Carlo Ancelotti kept a number of starters on the bench to begin the match, with the trio of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos eased in along with Ferland Mendy, while Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga were paired in midfield to start.

Raphinha scored what would be the winning goal midway through the first half in what was an ultimately timid affair, firing home from the top of the penalty area after a quick regain of possession up the pitch for Barcelona.

Modric, Kroos and Casemiro were introduced while the likes of Pedri and Sergio Busquets came off in the second half, creating the aura of a sparring match, and Barcelona held out despite chances to Ousmane Dembele.

Antonio Rudiger described the prospect of playing under Carlo Ancelotti as an "honour" after leaving Chelsea to join Real Madrid on a free transfer, as he targeted winning another Champions League title.

Rudiger signed a four-year contract with Madrid earlier this month, with his and Aurelien Tchouameni's arrivals at the Santiago Bernabeu already making for a significant transfer window.

He joins a side which has just won La Liga and the Champions League – the latter for a record-extending 14th time, while boss Ancelotti became the first coach to be crowned European champion on four occasions with last month's final win over Liverpool. 

Rudiger, who was instrumental as Chelsea won European football's premier competition in 2021, believes working under the Italian can help him reach those heights once more.

"It's an honour to play for Carlo Ancelotti," he told the club's website. "I'm convinced I can still learn a lot from him, and I hope he can help me win another Champions League here.

"The manager has played a big part in this [transfer]. After I spoke to him, I was convinced I wanted to join Real Madrid. But in general, everything this club represents is evident.

"I've always said that the Champions League is Real Madrid's competition, because that's where you see the club's real side.

"I'm very grateful to be here. It's like I'm dreaming, but this is real, and I feel immense pleasure to be here. I've never seen anything like this before."

Rudiger, who has won 53 caps for Germany, also revealed it was not international team-mate Toni Kroos that advised him to move to the Santiago Bernabeu, but Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic, who made 109 appearances during a four-year spell with the Spanish giants. 

"I haven't spoken to Kroos too much about Real Madrid, I've spoken to Mateo Kovacic and he's told me a lot of things," Rudiger added. "He talked a lot about [Madrid and Croatia's Luka] Modric.

"He told me: 'You go there and enjoy it, it's a great move for you'. I've never heard a bad word about Real Madrid."

Rudiger has also been in touch with another former Blancos star since making the move to Spain, namely Brazil's legendary 2002 World Cup hero Ronaldo Nazario.

"Ronaldo played in the 2002 final against Germany sporting a very distinctive haircut," the defender recalled. "When we were kids playing football in the street, Ronaldo was our idol.

"When I signed, I spoke to him on a video call. I was excited and very nervous at the same time!"

Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos has explained why he grew frustrated by a reporter's questions following Saturday's Champions League final.

Kroos added a fourth Champions League trophy to his collection of silverware after helping Madrid to a 1-0 win over Liverpool in Paris.

The 32-year-old played the entire match for Carlo Ancelotti's side, making three tackles, winning three fouls and completing a team-high 77 passes out of 83 attempted (92.8).

No Madrid player had more touches (92) or completed more passes in Liverpool's half (34), while Kroos was also one of only five players to create a chance for the Spanish giants.

Madrid delivered a fine counter-attacking display, soaking up Liverpool's pressure, though Los Blancos did rely heavily on goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who made nine saves, including outstanding stops from Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.

That tally of saves is the most in a Champions League final since Opta began collecting date in the 2003-04 season, with Liverpool having 24 shots in total.

In a post-match interview with a German reporter, Kroos was asked if he had been surprised by how much Madrid had suffered.

The former Bayern Munich midfielder quickly grew frustrated and, when the line of questioning continued, refused to carry on with the interview, walking away from the reporter, stating: "Ninety minutes and you only come up with s***** questions."

Speaking on the podcast he co-hosts with his brother Felix - 'Einfach mal Luppen' - Kroos explained his frustration.

"At the time I was just p***** off. I was p***** off at him," Kroos said, as reported by AS.

"Of course we had [suffered]. They have to go through two or three phases of pressure, I also told him that when he asked the question.

"But that's normal. What do you expect? That we dominate Liverpool for 90 minutes? They are a world-class team. We had to beat them and that's what we did.

"I wouldn't have said we put them up against the wall from the first minute to the 90th minute.

"I'm the first to say that it was a close game and Liverpool probably had a few more chances. But we won the game, like in the last few months.

"But instead I hear that we won unfairly. I don't give a s*** in a final, you have to win it."

Toni Kroos believes Karim Benzema has filled the Cristiano Ronaldo void at Real Madrid "to perfection" after enjoying a stunning 2021-22 season that has him in Ballon d'Or contention.

Heading into Saturday's Champions League final, Benzema has scored 44 goals from 45 matches across all competitions this term, which is 12 more than his previous best for a single campaign.

Similarly, his record of 0.98 goals per game is also comfortably the best he has managed over the course of one season.

Add to that a haul of 15 assists, Benzema's 59 goal involvements is second only to Kylian Mbappe (60 – 39 goals, 21 assists), highlighting just how much of a double threat Los Blancos' talisman has been.

Among his goals have been some crucial strikes as well. He netted consecutive hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in the Champions League, before also scoring three times over the course of the semi-final defeat of Manchester City.

He has not always been Madrid's main man in attack, with Benzema speaking openly in the past about having to sacrifice his own output for Ronaldo during their time together at the Santiago Bernabeu – he scored just five league goals in the 2017-18 season, for example.

But Kroos admires how the Frenchman has stepped up.

"It wasn't easy to become an even better player," Kroos told ZDF. "I've seen him for eight seasons in all kinds of different roles. Not in other positions, but in terms of the jobs he did on the pitch.

"There were times when he had to pull the bandwagon with his goals and others in which he used to look more to his right and left.

"Cristiano scored 50 goals per season for us and Gareth [Bale] was also on the left in his best years. Those two pillars fell from us.

"Others came like Vinicius [Junior] or Rodrygo, who are evolving very well, but we weren't able to cover Cristiano's 50 goals with just one player until Karim took on that role to perfection."

Saturday's game will be the third European Cup/Champions League final to be contested between Madrid and Liverpool, making it the most common match-up in UEFA's club showpiece.

Although Madrid won LaLiga with four matches to spare, there is a consensus they have exceeded expectations in the Champions League, particularly given they have had great escapes in all three knockout rounds.

Despite that, Kroos does not necessarily consider Liverpool favourites, even if he does accept they have been Europe's best this season.

"Honestly, I think this Liverpool are a better team than in 2018," he added, looking back to Madrid's 3-1 final victory in Kyiv.

"They managed to retain their best players and they signed a few more. Thiago [Alcantara] sets the standards in midfield, they are still very strong at the back and I think that, in terms of record, they were the best team in Europe this season.

"But it's still just one game and you also have to take into account that we eliminated them last season in the quarter-finals. It's 50-50."

He continued: "In a Champions League final you give everything, especially considering that we already had to give everything on more than one occasion to reach the final.

"Now we're there and we want to win the cup, yes, all being aware of the great rival we face."

Toni Kroos had a friendly prod at Manchester City and Sergio Aguero after the Premier League club unveiled a statue in honour of their former striker.

Aguero, who left City last year and has since retired due to a heart condition, is the club's record goalscorer. 

On the 10th anniversary of Aguero's last-gasp, title-clinching winner against QPR back in 2012, City unveiled a statue of Aguero's famous celebration.

However, the statue arguably looks more like Real Madrid midfielder Kroos, who picked up on that resemblance.

"Sure?" Kroos tweeted in response to a tweet from BBC Sport journalist Simon Stone, which included a photo of the statue.

It would not be the first time a statue of a player has drawn some ridicule – Cristiano Ronaldo, anyone? – but it may be the first time it has looked so similar to another star name.

Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos revealed Carlo Ancelotti sought advice from senior players when making tactical changes in the incredible Champions League semi-final win over Manchester City.

A late double from substitute Rodrygo – who became the first player in Champions League history to score twice in the 90th minute of a knockout match – saw Los Blancos force extra time in Madrid. Karim Benzema's penalty then secured a 6-5 aggregate triumph and kept alive Madrid's hopes of a 14th crown in the competition.

Madrid boss Ancelotti has now reached a fifth Champions League final, having done so in 2003, 2005 and 2007 with Milan, and in 2014 and 2022 across two spells with the Spanish champions, and his introduction of Rodrygo, who replaced Kroos after 68 minutes, proved vital.

Fellow substitute Eduardo Camavinga also produced an outstanding display from the bench as Madrid qualified for their 17th European Cup/Champions League final.

Kroos, 32, revealed he and other senior players were asked for input on Ancelotti's switches, saying the Italian's ability to communicate with his players makes him an elite coach.

"The coach himself had a few doubts about who he would bring on and who not to bring on," Kroos told DAZN. "We [the players] have all seen a few football games ourselves. That allows you to exchange ideas a bit.

"That describes him really well and why things always work well with the team. It's outstanding. In the end he decides, but of course he's interested in our opinion."

Since 2003-04, which saw the introduction of the Champions League's last-16 knockout stage, Madrid became the only team to lose a game in each of the first three knockout rounds and still make the competition's final (losing 1-0 to Paris Saint-Germain in the last-16, 3-2 to Chelsea in the quarter-finals, and 4-3 to City in the semi-finals).

After Los Blancos set up a repeat of their 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool, in which a Gareth Bale double won the Spanish outfit their 13th European title, Kroos said he was struggling to explain the team's remarkable ability to bounce back from falling behind.

"It's amazing, we were out 26 times during the knockout phase and fought back 26 times," he added.

"It's sometimes difficult to explain, even for me, what happened in the last few minutes. That's the belief, that's the stadium, the combination is magical."

Despite wrapping up their 35th LaLiga title and retaining a chance of winning the Champions League this term, Real Madrid find themselves at something of a crossroads.

The individual brilliance of Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior may have fired Los Blancos to a dominant triumph in LaLiga, but attention will soon turn to Madrid's attempts to defend the title for the first time since 2007-08.

With the potential arrival of a true global superstar and one of the Premier League's best defenders, as well as the matter of refreshing a brilliant but ageing midfield, it promises to be an interesting few months at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Here, Stats Perform analyses what Carlo Ancelotti's men could do to fend off the potential challenge of an improved Barcelona next season.

 

The Mbappe conundrum: How would the superstar fit in?

For months, if not years, Real Madrid's plans for 2022 seem to have revolved around one name: Kylian Mbappe.

While recent reports have suggested the 23-year-old could yet remain at the Parc des Princes, a move for the talismanic attacker – who will be a free agent in June – cannot yet be ruled out.

Having scored 35 goals and provided 19 assists in 43 appearances in all competitions for Paris Saint-Germain, Mbappe would clearly be an asset to any team in European football, but the question remains as to how Mbappe will complement another free-scoring Frenchman in the Spanish capital.

Benzema has become just the fifth Madrid player in history to score 40+ goals in a single season for the club (after Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez), and is being touted for the Ballon d'Or after driving Madrid's Champions League run. Benzema has scored 14 goals in 10 European appearances this term, averaging a goal every 65.1 minutes in a stunning campaign.

Mbappe and Benzema are no strangers to playing together, but the PSG forward failed to score and only provided one assist when doing so during France's disappointing Euro 2020 campaign. The Madrid man, meanwhile, finished just one goal short of the golden boot after netting four times.

Matters are complicated further when taking into account the form of Vinicius, who has formed a lethal partnership with Benzema this season, registering 33 goal involvements of his own in all competitions (18 goals, 15 assists), and Mbappe's preference to play from the left could infringe on Vinicius. 

However, Mbappe's development into a more well-rounded attacking talent should ensure he at least provides a threat, whichever flank he starts from. 

As well as improving on his 11 assists from last season, Mbappe has completed more dribbles (138) at a higher success rate (50.74 per cent) than Vinicius this term (130, 41.4 per cent), and could join him in playing a more creative role supporting Benzema.

Upgrading in defence: The arrival of Antonio Rudiger

Having announced his intention to leave Chelsea at the end of his contract, Antonio Rudiger is another player strongly linked with a move to the Bernabeu ahead of next season.

The German defender has been one of the Blues' outstanding players under Thomas Tuchel, starring in their Champions League triumph last year and enjoying another fine campaign this season.

Rudiger has been a key component in the Premier League's third-best defence this season, with Chelsea keeping 15 clean sheets and conceding just 28 goals despite falling out of title contention after a promising start.

The 29-year-old appears to be an upgrade on Madrid's current defensive options after last year's departures of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, offering more physicality than David Alaba and greater defensive steel than Eder Militao, a partnership that was frequently exposed by Manchester City recently.

Rudiger would also offer a threat at the other end of the pitch, with his three league goals this season bettered by just one other Premier League centre-back (Jan Bednarek, four), and his ability to step out of defence was on display when he scored a 39-yard stunner against Brentford in early April – Chelsea's longest-range Premier League goal since January 2007

However, Rudiger has been accustomed to playing in a back three at Chelsea and would be most likely to play as a right-sided centre-back in a back four for Madrid, unless Ancelotti opts to shift Alaba to left-back.

Rudiger would likely have to curb his attacking enthusiasm if paired with the naturally forward-thinking Alaba, but he appears a smart choice to further solidify a defence that has been the second-strongest in LaLiga this term (only Sevilla have conceded fewer goals).

The case for Camavinga: Time to look to the future?

The midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will go down in Madrid history: they started together in three consecutive Champions League final wins between 2016 and 2018, with the Croatian also starring in 2014's victory.

Nobody can question their quality or longevity. All three have made at least 35 starts this season, while Modric in particular has produced several sumptuous contributions in big games that have helped him to an assist haul of nine, six more than any other Madrid midfielder.

 

However, given they occasionally appear to lack a certain dynamism when out of possession, could Madrid benefit from some extra mobility in the engine room?

The signing of Eduardo Camavinga, who has made 35 appearances this term, was clearly made with such a move in mind, but the French youngster has only started 14 times in all competitions and would benefit from more playing time next season as he looks to improve his all-round game.

However, neither Camavinga nor Federico Valverde possess the kind of metronomic abilities of Modric or Kroos, and the younger pair also average fewer passes into the final third per 90 minutes than their more experienced peers (6.25 and 6.1, respectively).

As such, with the rumoured arrivals of Mbappe and Rudiger involving no transfer fees, Madrid could yet benefit from dipping into the market to acquire another young, progressive midfielder in a move that might also help to prolong the excellence of Modric and Kroos.

After a third successive Champions League title, Cristiano Ronaldo's departure for Juventus was meant to signal the end for a team that had scaled the heights of European football.

The annus horribilis of the 2018-19 season seemed to reaffirm such sentiment, but with Real Madrid now claiming a second LaLiga title and sitting another hair's breadth from the Champions League final since that departure, it seems even more irrational in hindsight.

How have Madrid been able to sustain their level among the best in European football and keep fighting for silverware on multiple fronts despite such a seemingly transformative absence? How have they won this season's LaLiga title with such ease?

Despite a severely weakened Barcelona and a supposed closing of the gap to the rest, Madrid can still reach 90 points this season.

 

In reality, their three successive Champions League triumphs during Zinedine Zidane's first spell in charge were largely due to the ideal balance of their midfield, comprising of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric.

To use but one example, bring into perspective how could they nullify Liverpool's ability to press in both the 2017-18 final and then again in the 2020-21 quarter-final over two legs, with Zidane in charge for a second time.

It bears repeating. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp – a great pressing team that squeezes the opposition into submission, consistently forces errors and is tactically transforming football before our eyes – were eventually rendered inert on multiple occasions.

At Madrid's core though, the collective did and continues to flourish via the creative and incorporative link between Modric and Karim Benzema, both with and without the ball. In a burgeoning era of automation and systems, they are the system.

 

The thing that maximises the duo's technical proficiency is their ability to improvise and embrace risk in the exploitation of space. If automation was football's equivalent to the legend of developing a pen in space, the link between Modric and Benzema is the comparative pencil – just as effective, far more practical.

Granted, that reliance on them creates volatility. When the two are on the pitch, they give Los Blancos a distinct flexibility. When they're not together, the collective is without a reference point and their relationship between defence and attack is compromised – as it was in their thumping in El Clasico in March or even going back to the 2016-17 season and their Copa del Rey elimination in the quarter-final over two legs to Celta Vigo.

 

Viewing Madrid through this prism makes a lot of other aspects relating to them clearer – the ability to feasibly play Lucas Vazquez at right-back in Dani Carvajal's absence, the varying shifts in form from the likes of Vinicius Junior and Kroos this season, or the differing fates of Eduardo Camavinga and Martin Odegaard upon attempting to integrate them into the midfield.

On that latter point, within this context, Camavinga earning more scope at Kroos' expense instead of Modric does not become much of a surprise – because while Benzema has elite comparisons in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane in terms of profile, Modric has always been one of a kind.

Midfielders as complete as Modric, possessing the effortless ability to blur the line between the elegant and the practical, simply did not exist before him – at least as a deep-lying player and not deployed higher up the pitch.

At the incomprehensible age of 36, the Croatia international is still unique, still elite. Ahead of Saturday's match, he led Madrid's midfielders in all competitions this season for chances created in open play per 90 minutes (1.1), expected assists (0.17) and trailed only Camavinga (1.5) for dribbles completed (1.4).

Only Kroos (12.5) bettered Modric (9.5) for passes into the final third per 90 in all competitions, but the German's passing represents an increasingly singular role in Madrid's midfield. He is a world-class distributor, but it is maximised as a result of the spaces that Benzema and Modric create.

No player is more relevant in this regard, however, than Vinicius. His own progression has also accelerated upon that basis. Benzema and Modric's ability to collapse opposition defences leaves the opposition full-back on Vinicius' side isolated, and the 21-year-old can be destructive when he has momentum to dribble.

This all matters because it creates a cumulative impact on how Madrid score their goals. In all competitions ahead of Saturday's game, Vinicius topped the team for dribbles completed per 90 (3.0), chances created from open play (2.3) and expected assists (0.23). 

This goes some way to explaining Benzema's dramatic increase in rate of goal scoring, especially comparing 25 goals in 29 league appearances heading into the weekend to his tally of five LaLiga goals in 2017-18.

Much like Modric, 34-year-old Benzema has the capacity to be flexible as that central striker, and to do what the game requires of him in any given moment. 

 

The reference point Benzema and Modric provide has been the primary dynamic in this season's title win – Carlo Ancelotti's first LaLiga success. They can win games in an instant but collectively, the consequent ability to manage games and keep applying pressure from either winning or losing positions, on the back of both territorial and positional superiority, has been critical.

Ultimately, intelligent footballers gravitate towards one another and it is one of most profound and beautiful aspects of the sport. While Madrid will eventually go on without Benzema and Modric, their interaction and how it has built a worthy title winner this season has only underlined that.

The dominance of Bayern Munich is not just down to financial muscle, but more the lack of consistency from their Bundesliga competition.

That is according to former Bayern midfielder Toni Kroos, who played 130 times for the Bundesliga giants before swapping Bavaria for Real Madrid in 2014.

Bayern became the first team across Europe's top five leagues to win their respective top flight on 10 successive occasions after a 3-1 victory over Klassiker rivals Borussia Dortmund last Saturday.

Julian Nagelsmann's side had previously shared the record of nine with Juventus, who won Serie A each year from 2012 to 2020, before cruising to their record-setting triumph with three games to spare.

Many cited Bayern's financial power as an issue in the German top flight, such as being able to prise Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund in 2014.

Indeed, Lewandowski helped power Bayern to the title with 33 Bundesliga goals so far this term, netting once every 81 minutes on average.

However, Kroos does not believe that it is just the disparity in transfer activity that has aided Bayern's dominance, but also the lack of constant pressure from title contenders Dortmund and RB Leipzig.

"The competition has to be more constant. Teams like Dortmund or Leipzig are quite capable of keeping up in certain phases," said Kroos in the Simply Mal Luppen podcast.

"But they are not as consistent. It's not just about money."

While Kroos was quick to question the competition provided by Dortmund and Leipzig, the 32-year-old could take nothing away from another fantastic season for Nagelsmann's men.

"It's an exceptional performance, especially mentally," said the midfielder. "It's no surprise that they are the best team in Germany in terms of quality.

"But wanting to do it year after year and giving the championship title meaning is something special."

 

Thomas Muller was also integral to the success of Bayern once again, with his 17 assists in 30 top-flight games this season unmatched by any player in Europe's top five leagues.

The evergreen Muller also surpassed former team-mate David Alaba (10 titles) as the Bundesliga's most decorated player of all time, having been ever-present in the 10-in-a-row feat alongside the title win in 2010 (11).

Kroos believes his former colleague Muller relishes the prospect of protecting Bayern's dominance every campaign.

"You can also say at some point, after the eighth, ninth, tenth time: 'Well, then not for a year.'," Kroos added.

"But I have the feeling that he has a lot of fun defending the thing year after year."

Karim Benzema believes Real Madrid need another special night at the Santiago Bernabeu to progress to the Champions League final following their 4-3 loss to Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola's side were 2-0 up inside 11 minutes at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday as a thrilling semi-final first leg got off to a flying start. 

Benzema's double – only his Panenka in the 82nd minute matching the degree of difficulty from a finish around body in the 33rd – ultimately helped Real Madrid limit the damage.

The 34-year-old called upon his club's fans to help them get to May's final in Paris.

"There are 90 minutes at the Bernabeu for the fans to make a difference again," Benzema told Movistar+. "We leave here with our heads held high to play a good game in the return leg. The fans leave proud.

"We have to keep our heads calm and see what we have to do to improve, a little of everything and especially at the beginning of games."

Benzema's brace against the Premier League leaders made him the fifth player in the Madrid's history to score over 40 goals in a single season, after Cristian Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez.

City were dominant against a Madrid side who badly missed Casemiro at the base of midfield, however, with Toni Kroos' defensive vulnerability a key factor in three of City's goals.

As has been the case during the knockout stage this season, in a game certainly not short on drama, Carlo Ancelotti's side managed to simply find a way to stay alive with a result that defied logic.

"A defeat is never good, but we are excited about this Champions League and the important thing is we never give up," Benzema said. "Now we have to go to the Bernabeu and we need the fans like never before to do something magical, which is to win.

"We entered the game without confidence, and that's what happens with an opponent like Manchester City. In this game a little bit of everything was missing."

Page 4 of 6
© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.