CHELSEA’S hopes of becoming the first English side to retain the European Cup since Nottingham Forest took a severe blow on Wednesday. Real Madrid – who if they win the Champions League this season will have been European champions at least twice as often as any other team on the continent – cruised to a 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge via yet another hat-trick from Karim Benzema, a man enjoying arguably the finest season of his career. Benzema became only the second player in Champions League history to score a hat-trick in consecutive knockout games after Cristiano Ronaldo, inevitably, did so in 2017.
Benzema’s ascension to a higher plane has left some people surprised, given he joined Real Madrid in 2009, or, if you prefer, a year before Instagram was created. But while his consistency is one of the main reasons he is still at one of the continent’s most highly pressured football environments, the fact that he is performing so well at the age of 34 is merely the continuation of a modern trend in the Champions League, albeit one that Benzema is pushing to new heights. His hat-trick against Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16 was the oldest scored in the UCL, a record he obviously extended by doing the same against Chelsea this week.
The reason Benzema is observing a modern trend is apparent when we look at players who have scored three or more goals in Champions League knockout ties. If we go back to 2003-04, which was the first UCL campaign in its current format, there have been 21 instances of a player scoring three or more goals in the knockout stages (ie the Round of 16, the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and the final). No teenagers have done so yet which is not that surprising, but the fact that more players aged between 30 and 34 have done so than players in their 20s perhaps is. As Liverpool and Mohamed Salah continue to debate their future together, here is hard evidence that elite players can continue to function at the highest level well into their fourth decade.
The youngest player to score a knockout hat-trick in the current form of the Champions League remains Nicklas Bendtner for Arsenal against Porto in 2010. Kylian Mbappe got within six days of beating that last season when he scored three against Barcelona but it feels like the Frenchman will end his career with more statistical accolades than Bendtner overall. Lionel Messi accounts for two of the pre-25 year old hat-tricks here, while Robert Lewandowski has one. The Pole’s four goal haul against Real Madrid for Dortmund in 2013 came when he was 24y 246d old. Impressive, especially for someone who seems like he was born already perfectly formed as a man in his 30s.
There’s variety in the 25-29 bracket, with Mario Gomez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mane and Lucas Moura doing so in 2012, 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively, but it’s interesting to note that they were all aged 25-27 when doing so. No player aged 28 or 29 has scored a knockout round hat-trick in the Champions League in its current format. Sadio Mane never will, either, as he turns 30 on Sunday.
That leaves us with the handsomely stocked 30-34 bracket which contains Benzema’s pair and four from Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as lesser spotted names like Sylvain Wiltord and Ivica Olic. One name not there is Lionel Messi, which means that his last hat-trick in a Champions League knockout game was against Bayer Leverkusen more than 10 years ago. Even players as era-defining as the Argentine have peak periods, and given that Messi’s most recent, and probably final, Champions League win came in 2015, his crowning era was past before we ever realised.
That is absolutely not the case for Benzema, whose pomp seems to be unfolding before our very eyes this season. Should Real Madrid do the league and Champions League double this season then it will be remembered as the Karim Benzema campaign. Chelsea were the latest victims but they surely won’t be the last.