When Karim Benzema struck a magnificent hat-trick against Barcelona last week in the Copa del Rey, it served a dual purpose. The striker knocked Real Madrid's bitter rivals out of the Spanish Cup at Camp Nou, and, with the world watching on, issued a powerful statement of intent as the season reaches its business end.
Los Blancos welcome Chelsea on Wednesday to the Santiago Bernabeu in a first leg Champions League quarter-final clash, and the Blues will be on red alert trying to stop the irrepressible Benzema. Madrid, aiming to win the trophy for the sixth time in 10 seasons, have burst into life in recent matches, scoring 12 goals in their last three games, including the 4-0 romp against Barcelona.
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They suffered a 3-2 defeat on Saturday in La Liga against Villarreal, but coach Carlo Ancelotti made six changes from the side that beat Barcelona to keep the likes of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric fresh to face Chelsea.
Benzema netted consecutive hat-tricks against Real Valladolid and Barcelona before that, like Madrid he is finding his best form at the crunch moments. "He's hit the switch," said Ancelotti after the Clasico triumph. "Working in the international break has helped him, he's in good shape to make the difference."
The Italian likened his team to a boiler, hitting the right temperature at the right time. "When the team is close to a title, the temperature of the boiler goes up," Ancelotti warned at the start of March.
After the 4-0 win at Camp Nou which saw Madrid reach the Copa del Rey final for the first time since 2014, Ancelotti brought up the boiler again.
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"The boiler has returned to the right temperature at the most important moment of the season," he said. Benzema's own temperature has fluctuated this season, from moments of high quality to weeks sidelined with injury problems.
The 35-year-old Frenchman spent much of October and November on the sidelines and he missed the World Cup after sustaining a thigh problem. Benzema failed to score a goal in the Champions League group stages but hit three against Liverpool across both legs of the last 16 clash.
Chelsea are familiar with the damage that the striker can do, with the striker netting a hat-trick last season at Stamford Bridge against the Blues in the quarter-finals in a 3-1 first leg win. Despite Thomas Tuchel's side battling back at the Bernabeu, the hosts forced the game to extra-time and Benzema headed home decisively in the 96th minute after Antonio Rudiger, now at Madrid, slipped.
It was a thrilling night of European football but despite Chelsea's best efforts in a 3-2 win, Benzema and Madrid marched on -- as they so often do. Madrid went on to lift the trophy by beating Liverpool in the final in Paris. Now their sights are set on Istanbul.
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"The truth is it was hard for us to be 100 percent motivated, that's quite normal," said Ancelotti after Madrid loss on Saturday in La Liga. The coach withdrew Benzema before the hour mark with his side 2-1 up against Villarreal, resting the striker for Chelsea's visit. Eventually Madrid fell to defeat, with their talisman only able to watch on from the sidelines.
"The temperature of the boiler went down a bit today," admitted Ancelotti after the game, continuing his metaphor. "But on Wednesday we will be flat out."
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