The limelight once again shone on a seemingly unstoppable Cristiano Ronaldo on Saturday afternoon as the Portuguese scored a sublime hat-trick, his third of the season, to help Real Madrid to an emphatic 5-1 win over Real Sociedad at the Santiago Bernabeu.
- Report: Real Madrid 5-1 Real Sociedad
The tasty treble took his tally to 16 for the season in La Liga, in just 13 appearances, and made him outright top-scorer domestically so far, edging three ahead of Atletico Madrid's Diego Costa. The goals brought his 19th hat-trick in La Liga, more than any other place since he arrived in the Spanish capital and took his tally for the calendar year to 36, more than any other player in Europe's top-five regarded leagues -- his nemesis Lionel Messi has 28.
The cries from the Bernabeu stands were for Madrid's talisman to win the Ballon d'Or -- "Balon de oro, Cristiano Balon de oro!" Ronaldo now has nine goals in four matches since Sepp Blatter's infamous speech about the former Manchester United man's love of his hair and his form is catching the attention of the watching world just at the right time to help him win world football's most coveted individual prize.
That much is obvious. What may have also been obvious, but will not be celebrated as much, was the performance of Karim Benzema. While Ronaldo hat-tricks have been numerous this season, applause for the Frenchman has not. So when Benzema was substituted with eight minutes left and received a standing ovation from the majority of Madridistas, it could not be ignored.
The former Lyon man has had a tough time of things this season, right from the first game of the season against Betis, even though he got on the scoresheet. The whistles have been reserved for Madrid's No.9, who had been made somewhat of a scapegoat for Los Blancos' relatively sluggish start to the campaign. Not just from the Spanish capital, either, with French fans questioning his commitment and qualities before ending his long goal drought internationally.
A lack of serious competition has been put as one reason for his failings, but Benzema has always come out fighting, in the press at least. Now he's finally starting to come out fighting on the pitch, too, something evident in the comfortable victory over La Real, which saw Madrid become the highest-scoring club in Europe's top five leagues on home soil with 23 at the Bernabeu to show for their efforts.
He was involved in Madrid's opening three goals as Carlo Ancelotti's men did all the damage in the first-half by cruising into a 4-0 lead against a Sociedad side that came into the match in pretty good form, but one that simply did not show up in the first 45 minutes.
After an encouraging opening ten minutes for the visitors, which brought a couple of early corners but failed to test goalkeeper Diego Lopez, Madrid began to assert control. Lopez's return in place of an Iker Casillas, who took the man of the match plaudits for many against Juventus, was one of three changes Ancelotti made to the side that drew in Turin in midweek. Dani Carvajal returned at right-back with Sergio Ramos suspended, while Alvaro Arbeloa moved to left back in the absence of the injured Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao.
Ronaldo soon fired his warning shot with a powerful drive from the edge of the box that skimmed Claudio Bravo's crossbar. The sides shared 13 goals in last season's double-header, with Los Blancos edging the Bernabeu match 4-3 and having to make do with a point from a 3-3 thriller in San Sebastian. A betting man would have gone for more of the same this weekend and would have been right on the money.
Benzema's first crucial moment came in the 12th minute when he provided the pinpoint cross for Ronaldo to open the scoring. Although charged with providing the finishing produce for Madrid this season, and failing on one too many occasions for the home support, the Frenchman has chipped in with more than his fair share of assists this season, especially since forming the thrilling three-pronged attack alongside Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. In Madrid's last thirteen games, Benzema, Ronaldo or Bale have either scored or assisted and that trend continued to Sociedad's misfortune.
His second key moment came just six minutes later. This time the roles were reversed with Ronaldo slotting a neat ball inside for the 25-year-old to produce a clinical finish and double his side's lead with his fourth goal in as many games.
Madrid were motoring and Benzema's next involvement may not have come through a goal or an assist, but a ball retrieval in the middle of the park that will have delighted Ancelotti and the watching Madridistas. The striker has not exactly endeared himself to Madrid fans through his work rate, but he ran back to win the ball and set a move going which eventually saw Ronaldo burst into the box and win a penalty. It looked a harsh call on Markel Bergara, who slid in to block the shot but the ball struck his arm accidentally. Ronaldo, as always, did not look a gift horse in the mouth. 3-0 and game, set and match.
A sign of Madrid's dominance, if the scoreline wasn't already a giveaway, came in Los Blancos' fourth of the match ten minutes before the break. Sami Khedira, of all people, tucked away a brilliant finish to leave the visitors a mountain they were simply not going to climb. Bale may not have got his goal, but he got his assist, his fifth in the last five matchdays in La Liga -- more than any other player.
The second half was pretty much a procession. Madrid had to wait for the visitors to re-enter the pitch and you can only imagine Jagoba Arrasate pretty much pushing his deflated side back out onto the pitch. Credit where it's due, at least, especially for Antoine Griezmann, who had a seemingly stone-wall penalty turned down before acting out some kind of justice with a brilliant finish minutes later to get his side on the scoresheet and leave Madrid facing another match without a clean sheet.
Ancelotti was keen to keep his opponents out and heighten confidence among his defenders, but with Ramos, Marcelo and Coentrao all out, the worry will not be too deep. Pepe was at fault for the goal, and with Raphael Varane heading back to full fitness and Ramos set for a return from suspension, the Portuguese may be the one to miss out when the defence is at full strength. The judging can be done then.
Ronaldo struck his hat-trick in reply with 15 minutes left -- a free-kick in perfect territory just out wide on the left. The power and pace in the shot left Bravo pinned to the spot and left Ronaldo wheeling away with yet another goal to his tally and another kick in the teeth of the FIFA president, it would seem. Thanks, Sepp.
The talking point will be Ronaldo's hat-trick but the ovation for a hard-working Benzema with eight minutes left on the clock should not be overlooked. The Frenchman had just played a neat one-two with Isco before firing just wide to get the Bernabeu to their feet, and the next act was to be replaced by Alvaro Morata, a move that has typically been met with jeers for Benzema and cheers for young Morata. Not this time, with Madridistas showing their delight at the performance of their No.9 and Benzema showing it back.
In a twist from the usual set of events, Morata had a glaring miss just minutes after his introduction after Ronaldo played him in from the right, and Sociedad had another couple of chances to make the scoreline slightly more respectable, but they could not take them.
La Liga now takes a break for international matches and Madrid, especially Benzema, will head into it in a much better frame of mind than the previous one. Madridistas, and indeed France, will be hoping his performance against the Basques can be a turning point in what's so far been a frustrating season.