Karim Benzema returned for Real Madrid after injury, only to find a new contender on his throne as the deadliest player in Spain, in the shape of Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski.
The French forward, a front-runner for the Ballon d’Or after leading Madrid to LaLiga and Champions League glory last season, finished as the top flight’s leading scorer with 27 goals.
However, this season a thigh injury kept him out for nearly a month and Barcelona’s marquee summer signing Lewandowski raced to the top of the goalscoring charts on nine goals, scoring in his last six league games.
Likewise, Barcelona moved top of LaLiga for the first time since June 2020, demonstrating their intent to depose both Madrid and their talisman this season.
Benzema returned against Osasuna on Sunday and it was the first time Madrid dropped points, in a frustrating 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu.
He put in a sluggish performance, perhaps unsurprisingly given his lay-off, not showing the quality on the ball or clever movement he usually excels at.
To make matters worse, Benzema blew a penalty late on which could have won his team the game, the third consecutive spot-kick he has missed against Osasuna and their goalkeeper Sergio Herrera.
Carlo Ancelotti brushed off the criticism aimed at the forward and gave Benzema another start against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Wednesday. Again the forward was underwhelming, failing to find the net, unlike his Brazilian wing-men Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo.
“He was very good and has been decisive with his quality and positioning,” said Ancelotti. “He played for his teammates and has been present in the area. He hasn’t scored, but that’s the last thing on our minds.”
Madrid, who have leaned heavily on Benzema in recent years since Cristiano Ronaldo departed in 2018, may finally have learned to cope without their figurehead.
The aforementioned dynamic duo and Uruguayan powerhouse Fede Valverde kept Madrid relentlessly ticking along during September.
The visit to nearby Getafe on Saturday is another chance for Benzema to find his groove ahead of bigger challenges, including the Clasico on October 16.
The side from the Madrid suburbs have conceded 15 goals, more than any side bar bottom of the table Elche, and lost at home 3-2 to Real Valladolid last weekend.
With Luka Modric returning from injury against Shakhtar too, Madrid’s squad is returning to full strength ahead of Barcelona and Lewandowski’s impending visit to the capital.
All they need now is for Benzema to start scoring again to add the finishing touch.
Player to watch: Brais Mendez
The Real Sociedad right winger has really hit form and has four goals in his last five matches in LaLiga, as well as netting against Manchester United in the Europa League.
Visitors Villarreal are defensively strong, well-drilled under Unai Emery, and Mendez’s explosive game could offer a way to break through. They romped to a 5-3 win at Girona last weekend, in which Mendez scored, along with Takefusa Kubo and a brace from Alexander Sorloth.
Mendez and his colleagues in attack, along with the veteran playmaker David Silva, seem to have solved the goal problem which spoiled an otherwise strong campaign for the Basque side last season, despite losing Alexander Isak to Newcastle in August.
4 – Sevilla have lost four consecutive games at home, across all competitions, for the first time since 2002, leading to Julen Lopetegui’s sacking on Wednesday.
11 – Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao have scored 11 goals in their last three games, and it’s the first time they have scored at least three goals in three consecutive games since Valverde was last at the helm, back in 2014.
50 – Barcelona whipped in 50 crosses in midweek against Inter Milan, their highest tally in any game since Xavi took over, but failed to score.