Real's Cat back out of the bag

Posted by Rob Train

Angel Martinez/Getty ImagesReal's Karim Benzema, left, showed he has not lost a step

"Athletic are always a difficult opponent and a historic team in La Liga," Real Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka said ahead of his side's Saturday clash with Marcelo Bielsa's Basque Lions. "Despite the absences they have, they will surely be a competitive team right until the end of the game."

Karanka is more or less obliged to issue such statements, being not only the yang to Jose Mourinho's yin but a former Athletic player himself. But the Bilbao of 2012-13 is itself a shadow of the side that marauded through last season. Shorn of Oscar de Marcos and Ander Herrera through injury, and Fernando Llorente through his ongoing outcast status at the club, the visitor started the evening on the back foot and never got out of second gear as Real cruised to a thumping 5-1 victory that did not even require Cristiano Ronaldo to contribute to the scoresheet.

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That was largely because the returning Karim Benzema turned his finest performance of the season. The man they call The Cat was let loose among the Lions and showed his claws to be the sharpest on the field by far. Real's opener went down as a Jon Aurtenetxe own goal but Benzema's movement to get onto the ball proved that far from being a little rusty after a few games out he has come back without breaking his early-season stride.

His second, a swivel-and-shoot from the edge of the box, was one for the family scrapbook. The French striker also played a part in two more goals in a virtuoso showing.

But this was above all a team performance -- one that brought to mind the best of Real from last season. Mesut Ozil was instrumental in much of Real's attacking momentum as unfortunate Gorka Iraizoz was battered from start to finish. With some help from the woodwork, the Basque keeper kept the scoreline more or less respectable and is one of a long line of fine Spanish stoppers who must often wonder what might have been if not for the man between the sticks at the far end.

This was Iker Casillas' 26th straight game against Athletic, against whom he made his debut in September 1999 at San Mames. In the majority of those encounters the Spain captain has been on the winning side; in fact, Athletic had not won in the Bernabeu since 2005 and in six of the past seven seasons Real has done the league double over its Basque opponent.

That record never looked in doubt in a slightly damp Spanish capital Saturday night. Mourinho even had the luxury of resting Angel di Maria and Sami Khedira ahead of the Champions League match against Manchester City, although both took to the pitch later on. Di Maria showed why he is a firm Mourinho favorite, scampering, harassing and giving the Athletic back four a torrid time after his introduction.

Khedira chipped in with a rare goal for Real's fifth late on but the contest was effectively over by half-time, allowing Real welcome respite ahead of its midweek reckoning.

By the time Llorente was introduced to the fray, the Bernabeu was feeling sufficiently cocky to cheer the burly Spain striker, probably because it recognized that he posed little threat to the outcome. Real was in total control from start to finish and even the award of a clear penalty in the 54th minute when Fabio Coentrao handled in the area might have served to embellish the scoreline but would not have affected the result.

Also on Friday, Karanka responded to a question about his players' physical fitness by pointing out that if they were below par on that score, Real wouldn't be in the business of sealing victory late. A wonderful interchange of passes between Di Maria and Ronaldo in stoppage time was evidence that even when cruising, Real isn't content to stroke the ball about as the clock winds down. Had Di Maria's eventual shot not screwed wide it would have been an early contender for goal of the season.

From Mourinho's point of view, putting the game to bed as soon as possible Saturday night was far preferable. Benzema was withdrawn to conserve his energy for the City match and Alvaro Morata, who dug Real out of a hole last week, received the biggest cheer of the night as his replacement. The canterano's name rang out from the stands as he took to the field, a reminder for anybody interested in the marbled halls of the Bernabeu that the home faithful likes to see one of its own wearing the shirt.

Benzema, though, is well on his way to being clutched to the Bernabeu bosom as an adopted son. The Frenchman's return will be pivotal to Real's chances of getting a result in Manchester next. It is a must as qualification is still not quite in the bag and City also stuck five past its league opponent, Aston Villa, on Saturday.

However, with Benzema in this form and Real beating Athletic in the style that saw it to the league title last season, Roberto Mancini will be up from now until Wednesday wondering what to do with his brittle back four. Or three. Or five . . .

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