8/10 Benzema snatches Madrid win with brilliant brace

Karim Benzema scored twice as Real Madrid came from behind to beat relegation-threatened Elche 2-1 on Saturday, keeping the champions in touch with leaders Atletico Madrid in the La Liga title race.

A quiet first half saw Isco have a shot saved, before Benzema put Madrid’s best opportunity wide after he was found in the box by Vinicius Junior. Thibaut Courtois was called into action to palm away Guido Carrillo‘s header.

Benzema hit the side netting after half-time, and Sergio Ramos had a penalty appeal waved away before Courtois saved again from Carrillo. Elche went ahead through Dani Calvo’s powerful header, and Madrid looked to be in trouble before Benzema equalised from substitute Luka Modric‘s cross and went on to score a sensational late winner.

Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
ESPN+ viewer’s guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more

Positives

The return of Ramos — who lasted just over an hour — is a huge plus for the team at an important moment in the season, with the Champions League round-of-16 second leg with Atalanta just around the corner. Ramos wasn’t at his best, but his presence alone is hugely valuable to the side, especially at times like these.

Madrid were able to dig deep and get the win despite rotating the team and giving tired players such as Modric and Toni Kroos a much-needed rest for the first hour. The midfield pair have been almost ever-present this season, and this was the first La Liga game where neither has featured from the start.

Negatives

This was the third game in a row in which Real Madrid have gone 1-0 down — it happened against Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid, too — and that’s not an encouraging trend. On all three occasions, the team have managed to salvage at least a point, or all three here, but they can’t keep making life so difficult for themselves and expecting to get away with it.

The first-half performance was worrying, with a real lack of urgency and apparent awareness of Madrid’s absolute need to take the three points to stay in the fight for the title. Fortunately, that was sorted out later on as the team picked up the pace considerably when under pressure.

Manager rating out of 10

7 — Zinedine Zidane went for a change of system here, celebrating the return of Ramos by switching to an unfamiliar back three. The first half was poor, Madrid finding it difficult to break Elche down, but Zidane reacted after the interval with a series of substitutions which swung the game decisively in their favour, bringing on Modric, Kroos and Rodrygo. The coach isn’t always rated for his in-game management but deserves huge credit here.

Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK Thibaut Courtois, 7 — Made his customary important saves, called into action in the first half to push away an Elche cross and then making another big stop after the break.

DF Nacho, 6 — Played on the left of the back three with the freedom to get forwards. Hit the net with a terrific first-half shot, but the whistle had already gone for a foul.

DF Raphael Varane, 5 — Beaten badly in the air by Calvo for Elche’s goal. For all his physical attributes, Varane sometimes looks passive in such situations.

DF Sergio Ramos, 6 — Back in the team after knee surgery five weeks ago. A little rusty, giving the ball away early on. Involved in debatable penalty calls at both ends of the pitch, he could have won one, and given another away.

DF Ferland Mendy, 6 — Started brightly on the left before fading with the team as the first half went on, and then rallying as they chased the game at the death.

MF Casemiro, 8 — No need for a rest, as he’s suspended for next week’s Champions League game with Atalanta. Besides Benzema, looked the most likely Madrid player to score, getting into the box at every opportunity.

MF Federico Valverde, 6 — Didn’t quite look up to speed in his first league start since December, playing on the right of a midfield three. One early cross that Isco couldn’t reach.

MF Isco, 6 — Unlucky not to feature in the Madrid derby after impressing against Atalanta and Real Sociedad, but less eye-catching here. Had a weak first-half shot saved.

FW Vinicius Junior, 6 — Played in attack with Benzema. One clever first-half through ball for Mendy. His best moment was the first-half cross from which Benzema really should have opened the scoring. Faded later.

FW Lucas Vazquez, 6 — Consistently impressive without excelling on the right. His deliveries from wide often threaten, even if they contribute to Madrid crossing the ball more often than they should.

FW Karim Benzema, 8 — Where would Madrid be without his 15 league goals? Followed his crucial late strike in the Madrid derby with a well-taken headed equaliser here and then an even better left-footed winner.

Substitutes

FW Rodrygo, 7 — Often looks more likely to score or create a chance than Vinicius. One excellent cross.

MF Luka Modric, 7 — Made a difference immediately. Created Madrid’s goal with his ball into the box for Benzema.

MF Toni Kroos, 6 — Was badly missed for the first hour, as Madrid lacked the fluency that the German brings to midfield.

FW Eden Hazard, NR — Replaced Vinicius and played the last 15 minutes in his first appearance since Jan. 30.