By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Karim Benzema is back to his best. The Frenchman has featured less than Gonzalo Higuain at Real Madrid this season, but, on Saturday night's evidence, he simply must be the first-choice striker at the Santiago Bernabeu.
With Higuain sidelined, Benzema was restored to the starting line-up following an injury of his own - and he didn't disappoint. The former Olympique Lyonnais striker forced the first, scored the third and set up the fourth in Saturday's 5-1 win over Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish capital, and the 24-year-old's fine form will be the most pleasing aspect of all for coach Jose Mourinho. After a largely indifferent start to the campaign, Benzema is back on track.
Many in the Bernabeu crowd and even watching on television thought the Frenchman had given Madrid the lead against Athletic. He had muscled his way between two defenders, following an exquisite long pass from Luka Modric, but the last touch seemed to come off Jon Aurtenetxe, who lobbed his own goalkeeper, Gorka Iraizoz.
After Sergio Ramos had made it 2-0 with a header, Benzema then turned just inside the area and arched a superb shot past Iraizoz after 32 minutes. There was no doubt at all about that one - it was a goal of the highest quality and, for all his attributes, a type of strike which Higuain seldom scores.
The Argentine had seriously considered leaving Madrid in the summer and only remained at the club after assurances over his role in the team from Mourinho. So Benzema, so often relegated to the bench in 2012-13, has been paying the price for the Portuguese's promises.
Barca & Madrid on Saturday
|1||Alex Song's strike to make it 2-1 was the midfielder's first goal for Barcelona|
|6||Benzema now has six goals for Madrid this term, but only two in La Liga|
|8||Eight points separate third-placed Madrid from leaders Barcelona after 11 rounds of La Liga|
|10||Barca ended Saturday's match with 10 canteranos on the pitch - and Alex Song|
|11||Of Madrid's 30 attempts, 11 came from Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Portuguese failed to net on Saturday|
|78||Lionel Messi's goals for club and country in 2012 are seven short of Gerd Muller's 1972 record of 85|
In his first season at the club, Mourinho used Benzema sparingly to begin with, but demanded more from his player after Higuain was laid low through injury. "If you go to hunt with a good dog, you hunt more," he famously told reporters. "If you go with a cat, you hunt less, but you still hunt."
And it worked. Benzema purred and the forward has now reacted again following a public confrontation with his coach. He came close on several occasions to adding another on Saturday, but set up Mesut Ozil for Madrid's fourth before making way for cantera hope Alvaro Morata after 74 minutes.
On Wednesday night, he will be back in the team to face Manchester City, and with Cristiano Ronaldo slightly below his best on Saturday, it is Benzema's performance which will give Madrid most confidence ahead of the Champions League clash at Eastlands.
Barcelona will be in Champions League action a day earlier as they travel to Spartak Moscow, and the Catalans continued their superb start to the season with a 3-1 win at home to Zaragoza, albeit by playing well within themselves.
Other than the win, which sees Barca extend their record run to 11 wins and a draw in La Liga this term, the best news for the club was the return of captain Carles Puyol from a dislocated elbow suffered at the beginning of October against Benfica.
With Puyol and Gerard Pique reunited at the back, Barca appear much more at ease. Still stretched at times on the break and at set pieces, however, the Catalans had to dig deep after Zaragoza's equaliser. Lionel Messi had opened the scoring with a perfectly placed shot after latching on to a Jordi Alba pass and gliding into the area. Alex Song later restored the hosts' lead after Martin Montoya's poor clearance had let in Paco Montanes. And Messi made it 3-1 as he guided a wonderful dipping drive into the corner from just outside the area on the hour to make it 78 goals in the calendar year and move ever closer to Gerd Muller's mark of 85, with up to 10 games still to play before the end of 2012.
It was comfortable for Barcelona but hardly a vintage performance. Messi, as so often before, had been the major difference. "It's too simple to say we are just Leo," Vilanova said afterwards. But the truth is they would be much less of a team without him.
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