Friday, December 2 2022

MADRID (AP) — The last time Karim Benzema was in a Champions League final, it was in a supporting role to Cristiano Ronaldo.

He was just another forward on a Real Madrid team in which Ronaldo attracted most of the attention.

It will be a lot different when Benzema takes the field this weekend in the final against Liverpool in suburban Paris.

Benzema has gone from one of Ronaldo’s sidekicks to Madrid’s most important player, and on Saturday he could cap his best season ever with a fifth Champions League title.

A victory would allow him — and several other Madrid players — to tie Ronaldo with the most Champions League trophies. It would also leave the France striker in a commanding position to win the Ballon d’Or award for best player of the year.

“I’m very proud,” Benzema said. “It’s been a really great season for me in terms of goals, assists and trophies and I feel really happy.”

Benzema scored 44 goals from 45 matches with his club this season, and equaled Madrid great Raúl González as the club’s second-highest scorer with 323 goals, behind the 451 of Ronaldo.

Since the Portugal star left in 2018, Benzema has been Madrid’s leading scorer season. Ronaldo had been in that role the previous nine years.

“I don’t know where I’ll stand in club history, we have to wait for my career to be over to know that,” the 34-year-old Benzema said.

There’s no doubt it has been a historic year for the striker, who has already helped Madrid win the Spanish league and the Spanish Super Cup. He was the leading scorer in the Spanish league with 27 goals, and in the Champions League with 15 goals from 11 matches.

Benzema was crucial for Madrid in its run to the European final, scoring 10 goals in the knockout rounds alone, including hat tricks against Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16 and Chelsea in the quarterfinals. He also scored the decisive extra-time goal that allowed Madrid to eliminate Manchester City in the second leg of the semifinals.

He will enter Saturday’s final having scored 20 goals in his last 16 games in all competitions.

Benzema said he won’t be feeling any extra pressure because of his success this season.

“The only pressure I’ll have is waiting to get out on the field,” he said. “It disappears once I walk out. The preparation is the same. We have to enjoy ourselves and we want to make the fans happy. We are in good shape, focused, preparing for the rest of the week up until Saturday. There is no pressure, we have to enjoy it.”

The other players who can match Ronaldo’s five Champions League titles are Gareth Bale, Dani Carvajal, Francisco Isco, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Nacho Fernández. They were all in the squad that won three straight European titles from 2016-18.

Benzema did have a leading role in the 2018 final against Liverpool, opening the scoring early in the second half of the 3-1 win in Kyiv.

He hopes he can come through again this time.

“They haven’t changed much for the last four or five years,” Benzema said. “We have to focus on our own game. We eliminated PSG, Chelsea and City, who were the favorites. We are full of confidence heading to Paris. Anything can happen in a final.”

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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