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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Real Madrid owe La Liga title to Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos’ age-defying antics

With their 34th league title win, Real Madrid laid down a marker of domestic dominance helped by the experience of Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema, and the safe hands of Thibaut Courtois.

Written by Debkalpa Banerjee | Updated: July 18, 2020 3:42:30 pm
Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema have contributed to 40 goals together this season. (Source: Twitter/@RealMadrid)

Upon the final whistle at the empty 6,000-seater Alfredo di Stefano Stadium on Thursday, Real Madrid players jumped with joy after their title-winning 2-1 victory over Villarreal. After finishing 19 points behind Barcelona last season, surviving a managerial turmoil, and a lacklustre pre-season, Los Blancos returned to their old self through unmatched resolve.

While Zinedine Zidane can be considered as the architect of La Liga triumph, the players were the bricks that solidified the foundation of its success.

Even though their €100 million signing Eden Hazard suffered injuries resulting in poor form, Real Madrid’s season was on track owing to the collective effort that helped the team maintain a ten-match winning streak after the three-month pandemic break. Even though the critics had their doubts about the aging squad, the experience of Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, and the midfield turned the team into an unbeatable giant in the latter stages of the season. Even though Barcelona had upgraded on their title-winning squad, their rivals had the last laugh by not depending on a sole messiah throughout the season.

READ | How Real Madrid turned the table after the restart to win title

Leading his side from the back, Ramos took it upon his shoulders to translate his manager’s tactical changes on the pitch. With his trusted partner Raphaël Varane by his side, the 34-year-old transformed the leaky side, which conceded 46 in 2018/19 and 44 in 2017/18, to the best defence in the top five leagues of Europe, conceding just 0.62 goals per game — 23 goals in 37 league games.

The bearded veteran, now the highest-scoring defender in La Liga history, remained unflappable in high-pressure moments in-front of the opposition goal too. Using his aerial prowess and his penalty-kicking ability, the competitive defender scored a career-high 10 goals this season, including the deciders in consecutive wins against Getafe and Athletic Bilbao.

Although Real Madrid thrived on their team effort, having 21 different goalscorers this season, Benzema’s predatory contributions were undoubtedly head and shoulders above the rest. The 32-year-old scored 21 goals and registered eight assists throughout the season, facilitating others with his characteristically unselfish link-up play.

In addition to his vital point-winners, the Frenchman has also been in the thick of things this season, dropping into midfield and combining with his teammates. Ever since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018, Benzema has more than doubled his goals tally — 42 goals in the past two seasons compared to the previous 16 in 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons.

Through his lethal goalscoring record, selflessness with the ball, and his exemplary fitness, Benzema has made himself an irreplaceable cog in Zidane’s machine. So much so that club president Florentino Perez was quoted by DailyMail, “Benzema should win the Balon d’Or. I have not seen any player have as good a year as him.”

In the middle of the park, the usual suspects of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro showed their 2016/17 title-winning mettle this season. Amongst the three, the 34-year-old Croatian shone the brightest since the restart in June, doing what he does best — recycling the ball, maintaining the possession, finding the right passes for his teammates, and scoring the occasional long-range efforts.

Apart from the aging wonders, Thibaut Courtois’ brilliance with the gloves were also vital in Real Madrid’s third La Liga title win in the past nine seasons. Having moved from Chelsea in the summer of 2018, the Belgian came under a lot of criticism last season but he silenced his critics this season with a league-high 18 clean sheets.

Courtois offered assured protection to Los Blancos’ defence and filled in the boots of Keylor Navas effortlessly, conceding just 20 goals in 34 matches. The former Chelsea goalkeeper’s resurgence has positioned him perfectly to clinch the Golden Glove from Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak, who has had the best mark in the previous four seasons.

But the question still remains whether Real Madrid can sustain the challenge next season because of their doddering squad. The potential answer is yes, because even if Zidane decides to offload the unsettled pair of Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez, Real Madrid’s youthful squad provides a path for a brighter future.

With sprightly players like Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo Goes, Ferland Mendy, Eder Militao, and Federico Valverde in the team, Zidane might not have a problem in rebuilding his squad. Furthermore, the club has young players like Martin Odegaard (Real Sociedad), Takefusa Kubo (Mallorca), and Sergio Reguilon (Sevilla) out on loan.

Before Real Madrid move on to the next immediate task of overturning a Champions League deficit against Manchester City next month, they will play out their domestic season on Sunday against Leganes.

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