Football

Benzema stars as Real move level with Atletico at La Liga summit

Karim Benzema was described as “phenomenal” after scoring the opening goal and creating two others as Real Madrid won 3-1 at Eibar on Sunday (Dec 20) to move level on points with city rivals Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga.

Benzema and Luka Modric scored inside the first 13 minutes in the Basque Country to put Zinedine Zidane’s men on their way to a fourth straight league win, with Lucas Vazquez scoring a late third after  Kike pulled one back for Eibar.

“He is decisive. What he does is phenomenal,” said coach Zidane in praise of French compatriot Benzema.

“Not just in terms of goals. I’m repeating myself on Karim, but he doesn’t just score goals. Karim brings clear-sightedness to our game, that’s very important. When he scores it’s even better but, beyond that, he is very important to us.”

Real sit behind Atletico on goal difference, but have the better head-to-head record, which is how level teams are split at the end of the season. Diego Simeone’s Atletico have two games in hand, though, after Saturday’s 3-1 success against Elche.

Fifth-placed Barcelona are eight points adrift of the Madrid pair following their 2-2 draw with Valencia.

Eibar started brightly, but fell behind in the sixth minute as Rodrygo fed Benzema to slot in his seventh league goal of the season.

Benzema, who was also hailed by Zidane as the greatest ever French centre-forward earlier this week, created the second goal seven minutes later, cutting inside and picking out Modric who fired home right-footed.

The striker should have doubled his tally in the 16th minute, but he headed Modric’s cross past the post.

Real went close to a third goal again when home goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic kept out Rodrygo’s close-range effort, but Eibar got themselves back into the match in spectacular style before the half-hour mark. Kike collected the ball outside the area before curling a fine finish past Thibaut Courtois.

Benzema thought he had restored the visitors’ two-goal lead before half-time, but was flagged for a marginal offside, with VAR upholding the linesman’s decision.

Eibar, sitting 14th in the table, wasted an excellent chance to equalise 11 minutes after the break, as Takashi Inui shot wide following a rare mistake from Real captain Sergio Ramos.

The reigning champions struggled to put the game to bed in the second half, with Marco Asensio striking a free-kick narrowly off target shortly after coming on as a substitute.

The capital giants survived a late scare when VAR decided not to award Eibar a penalty after the ball struck Ramos’ arm.

Vazquez wrapped up the points in injury time with a cool finish from a tight angle, having been played in by Benzema.

Eibar coach Jose Luis Mendilibar vented his fury with Spanish referees’ inconsistency over handball decisions after match referee Jose Luis Munuera Montero chose not to review the Ramos handball incident on the pitchside monitor.

“We don’t have any idea what’s going on, this week there were a lot of handballs and we don’t know when they should be punished and when they should not be,” Mendilibar said.

“Today a decision was taken in 20 seconds when normally it takes two or three minutes after a slow-motion replay.”

Mendilibar loudly protested the decision from the sidelines and got a talking-to from the referee before eventually calming down and he was not punished for his complaints.

The coach, who has long opposed the use of video technology in football due to the disrupting effect it has on the game, said he did not think that VAR would help the lack of clarity over handballs.

“It was clear the ball had hit Ramos on the hand, Ramos said so himself, but we don’t know when these incidents should be punished and I don’t think the referees do either,” he added.

“We are left with the same problem we have had all season and it doesn’t matter whether or not we have VAR because the problem will keep existing.”

Real defender Dani Carvajal shared Mendilibar’s frustrations over handball decisions even though this time his side benefited from it.

“It’s not clear to us, there are some plays which do not make sense. The criteria needs to be cleared up because otherwise we will protest against any decision,” he said.

But Zidane refused to get dragged into the debate when asked whether his side had been let off the hook.

“The most important thing is that it was clear to the referee. It’s the referee’s job to decide, I’m not getting involved,” he said.

Earlier on Sunday, former Spain international Roberto Soldado scored twice as Granada moved into sixth with a 2-0 win over Real Betis, while Getafe beat Cadiz 2-0 and Celta Vigo made it four straight victories by seeing off Alaves by the same scoreline. – AFP,  REUTERS

Footballla ligaREAL MADRIDeibarKarim BenzemaZinedine Zidane