Bit by bit, it seems to be coming back to Karim Benzema.
It took the Frenchman time to find his footing in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era, operating as Real Madrid’s main striker again. Leading man was a role he seemed to have forgotten how to play, operating instead in dutiful sacrifice to Ronaldo, for the good of the team.
After a joyful burst of four goals in the first three league games as the team breathed free of the shadow of Cristiano, the well ran dry for both player and club. Benzema went on an eight-game dry spell and Madrid failed to score for nearly seven hours, fractionally short of a club record drought.
That lack of goals cost Julen Lopetegui his job but Santiago Solari has found a way to coax them out of Benzema again.
The title race is technically still on, even if it is unlikely that Madrid will catch up with their arch-rivals, and Benzema’s form at least bodes well for their European title defence.
After coming off at half-time against Real Betis with a finger injury on January 13, Solari challenged his forward into playing with a protective hand cast, rather than taking three weeks off to heal. It’s paying dividends.
The 31-year-old broke the deadlock after just three minutes by stabbing home from close range after Luka Modric’s shot was saved, then steered home another just before half-time with a curled finish.
Solari’s Madrid have tended to be unspectacular but efficient, for the most part, especially against opponents of this calibre, but with his skilful performance Benzema turned the quality dial up a notch or two, giving the team confidence and belief.
After Benzema’s opener and Sergio Ramos heading in the second, Leo Baptistao’s strike came out of nowhere and a few weeks ago would have shaken Madrid.
That they conceded wasn’t a surprise, given their poor defensive record on the road this season. Madrid have kept just one clean sheet in 11 away games, while recording seven shut outs from 10 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
However after Baptistao’s blast they stayed calm and regained control, with a neat move finished off by Benzema after good work from Vinicius Junior.
The striker now has 14 goals in 32 games in all competitions, which while below the levels of other elite forwards in the division including Barcelona duo Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, is a solid tally.
With nine league goals for the season he has already nearly doubled his paltry tally of five last term and caught up with his total of 11 the year before. Across all competitions he’s already beating both of the previous two seasons.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Madrid is that he’s not lost his work ethic or ability to contribute to build-up play either. Sensational passes from Benzema released Dani Carvajal and Modric as Madrid looked for more.
Benzema was involved in the build up again for Gareth Bale’s goal, with the Welshman making his latest return from injury and firing home after fantastic work by his strike partner, who teed him up with a cute backheel.
The forward did spurn a chance to complete his hat-trick, but that was a minor moment of personal frustration on a night on which he otherwise hit all the right notes and helped Madrid play with a touch of class again.