BARCELONA, Spain (AP)At an age when most top athletes are hoping to maintain their form, Karim Benzema is reaching the pinnacle of his career.

The 34-year-old France striker is enjoying the best season of the 13 he has spent at Real Madrid and making a strong argument for being considered the top player in the world.

Benzema has put in remarkable back-to-back performances in soccer’s elite club competition, scoring consecutive hat tricks in Champions League matches against Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain.

Benzema’s three goals at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday gave Madrid a commanding 3-1 advantage in their Champions League quarterfinalwith Chelsea. Last month he singlehandedly brought Madrid back against PSG with a stunning second-half treble to advance his team on a 3-2 aggregate score.

Madrid hosts Getafe in the Spanish league on Saturday before Chelsea visits the Santiago Bernabeu needing a big win to keep alive its European title defense.

But with Benzema playing like he is, Madrid has a great chance to add to its 34 Spanish league titles and 13 European Cups, both competitions records.

Fueled by Benzema’s league-high 24 goals, 10 more than his nearest chasers, Madrid leads Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla by 12 points with eight games remaining in Spain.

Beside his two exquisite headers to put Madrid up 2-0 at Chelsea, Benzema has also shown that hustle pays off. Against both PSG and Chelsea he produced goals by pressuring goalkeepers into gifting him the ball. Add to that his superb sense of timing, knowing just when he should drop into midfield to help unlock the opposing defense and cue an attack, and you have what Carlo Ancelotti calls ”a complete player.”

”He’s just like a fine wine,” the Madrid coach said about Benzema. ”He gets better every day and feels as if he’s gaining in importance within the team every day and is becoming more of a leader. That’s making all the difference in him.”

When Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid’s all-time leading scorer, left in 2018, Benzema stepped to fill the void. Even so, he appeared to only be a temporary fix until president Florentino Perez brought in a true superstar, such as PSG forward Kylian Mbappe, to restore Madrid to greatness.

Benzema, however, has blossomed into that stellar player well over a decade since joining Madrid from his hometown club of Lyon.

He has scored 10 of Madrid’s last 11 goals and has 37 goals in 36 games in all competitions this season. That already surpasses his previous best of 32 goals for Madrid in the 2011-12 season.

And if Mbappe does come, Benzema has shown throughout his career that he can play alongside stars that may even outshine him. He was content to play second fiddle, and sometimes even third fiddle, to Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

That ability to put the team first even earned him the scorn of some Madrid fans- and voices in Spain’s sports media- who demanded more hunger and ambition of a player of his talents. Former coach Zinedine Zidane more than once had to defend Benzema when pressed to give then youngster Alvaro Morata a chance to fight for his starting job.

Zidane knew what has since become clear to everyone: that Benzema had the potential to become the best striker in the game.

FOR SECOND PLACE

Barcelona visits Levante on Sunday tied on points with Atletico and Sevilla but with a game in hand on both as they fight it out for a likely second-place finish.

Sevilla will look to end a four-match winless skid against Granada on Friday while Atletico travels to Mallorca on Saturday before hosting Manchester City next week needing to overturn a 1-0 loss in their Champions League quarterfinal.

Villarreal hosts Athletic Bilbao also on Saturday after beating Bayern Munich 1-0in the opening leg of their final-eight clash in Europe.

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