El Centrocampista

Benzema back in favour as Ronaldo exit rumours persist

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The immensely fickle world of Spanish football has a new poster boy, and his name is Karim Benzema. Just a few short weeks ago, the Madrid based sports dailies were queuing up to criticise the Frenchmen for a perceived lack of form, but by yesterday those same journalists were serenading him after a virtuoso performance against Athletic Bilbao in the Bernabeu on Saturday evening.

It was an unusually good week overall for the Spanish champions. Having vanquished the demons that have befallen them in recent years in Levante’s Estadio Ciutat de Valencia last Sunday night, they produced one of their best performances of the campaign against a Bilbao side admittedly shorn of some key players since the two sides last met.

Furthermore they received the go ahead from the local government to remodel the Bernabeu, a plan which will include completely covering the stadium with a retractable roof. And they also seem likely to shed some of the players from their squad who have had little more than bit part roles this season, with AC Milan apparently keen to sign the trio of Raul Albiol, Ricardo Carvalho and Kaká.

However try as they might, it seems impossible for the club to control the persistent rumours linking Cristiano Ronaldo with a move away from La Liga. It seems particularly strange that his loyalty to Madrid should once again be questioned, in a week in which he has shrugged off a nasty eye injury inflicted by the elbow of Levante defender David Navarro to take his place in the starting eleven against Bilbao.

Both public relations director Emilio Butragueño and team mates Alvaro and Jose Callejon have sought to quell the rumours by insisting that the Portuguese superstar is happy, believing that he is playing for the best team in the world.

However in a week in which the squad will travel to Manchester City to face one of the very few sides in the world who could afford to sign him, the speculation is guaranteed to continue, and would be heightened still further should Ronaldo bounce back from a rare blank in front of goal on Saturday night and end his prospective future employers’ involvement in the Champions League.

The starting eleven for Wednesday’s showdown in the Etihad is still to be decided, although neither Gonzalo Higuain nor Marcelo will recover in time to be involved. Michael Essien sat out the Bilbao game with a minor injury, but with a draw a perfectly acceptable outcome for Jose Mourinho’s men, and Sami Khedira still not fully match fit, the Ghanaian may yet return to the side if he recovers in time.

However with Benzema and Ronaldo certain to start, such a move would probably mean that Luka Modric would return to the bench, which would seem somewhat harsh after a couple of highly impressive starts in recent weeks. Mesut Ozil has surely cemented his place after another imperious display at the weekend, and Xabi Alonso’s place is also guaranteed. Expect fireworks on a night when nothing less than a win for City will do.

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