Carlo Ancelotti said Karim Benzema is back in “optimal condition” and still among the world’s best after the forward scored a hat trick to fire Real Madrid into the Copa del Rey final with a 4-0 win over Barcelona.
Vinicius Junior opened the scoring before half-time at Camp Nou before Benzema scored three times in 30 minutes to overturn Barca’s 1-0 first leg lead and book Madrid’s place in the final against Osasuna on May 6.
It was Benzema’s second hat trick in three days after he also scored three times in Madrid’s 6-0 LaLiga victory over Real Valladolid on Sunday, to make it 19 goals in all competitions since the World Cup.
“The work [Benzema] did during the international break helped a lot,” Ancelotti said in his postmatch news conference on Wednesday. “He’s found his optimal condition again, and with the quality he has, the physical condition that supports that quality makes the difference.”
Benzema faced criticism earlier this season after a series of muscular injuries left him struggling to recapture the form that won him the 2022 Ballon d’Or.
“Why not?” Ancelotti said when asked if, aged 35, Benzema stood a chance of retaining the award. “He’s still one of the best players — not forwards, but players — in the world right now, without doubt. When he’s healthy, he makes the difference.”
Madrid’s 4-0 win at Camp Nou was the team’s best result away at Barcelona in 60 years and came having lost their previous three El Clasico meetings.
“The boiler has reached the right temperature again,” Ancelotti said, when asked if he was proud of the performance. “This is the most important moment of the season and when we’re at the right temperature, we’re fine.
“The team delivered in every sense: defensively, offensively, being clinical up front. It was the perfect game.”
With Barcelona 12 points clear at the top of LaLiga, Madrid went into the Copa del Rey semifinal second leg with a point to prove. The game frequently threatened to boil over, with Vinicius having to be restrained by teammates before being substituted late on.
“In a game like that, it can happen,” Ancelotti said. “I took him off because it didn’t make sense to have him on the pitch. He had a yellow card and with another yellow card he’d miss the final. We didn’t want to take risks.
“Maybe opposition players look for [Vinicius],” goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said. “They say things, it happens on the pitch, they’re looking for a red card. We need the best Vini, like we got today.”