Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
MADRID — Real Madrid's triumphant 2021-22 LaLiga campaign will be remembered for the exploits of striker Karim Benzema.
The marauding French international scored his 26th goal in 30 league games on Saturday, sealing Real's 4-0 home win over Espanyol that secured a record-extending 35th Spanish league title with four games to spare.
It has been a stellar season that took some time to arrive for the 34-year-old French striker, who took his place as the undisputed leader and most influential player in a team that needed a talisman after losing Cristiano Ronaldo four years ago.
Benzema became a deadly striker without losing his capacity to track back and help build moves from deeper positions.
He has scored 35% of Real's 73 goals in LaLiga so far this season and also has 11 assists.
It has been a work-in-progress with Benzema getting better and better over the last three years.
Without Ronaldo, he has been Real's offensive benchmark and top scorer in all competitions with 30 goals and 11 assists in 2018-19; 27 and 11 in 2019-20; and 30 plus nine in 2020-21.
But he truly excelled this season, with a career-best 42 goals in 42 games in all competitions, more than twice as many as any other top-flight player in Spain.
In LaLiga, Benzema netted game-winning goals in 18 games and helped Real secure 43 of their 81 points by either opening the scoring or securing the wins.
He surpassed the great Alfredo Di Stefano (308) earlier this season in Real's all-time top scorers list and is three goals from leapfrogging Raul (323) in second, with Ronaldo (450) top.
In 13 seasons with Real, Benzema has won four Champions League and LaLiga titles, four Club World Cups, three European Super Cups, two Copa del Reys and four Spanish Super Cups.
But it has been a long ride. He was criticised at the start of his tenure for being inconsistent and lacking commitment.
Back in 2010 then-Real manager Jose Mourinho used a metaphor to explain how he felt about playing Benzema: "Will have to go hunting with a cat because I don't have a dog."
The 'cat' nickname stuck to Benzema who is now shining for Real and his country having returned to the France team last year following a six-year absence.
A blackmail scandal and his comment that France coach Didier Deschamps had "bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France" when leaving the forward, a Muslim of Algerian descent, out of the Euro 2016 squad, was followed by international exile.
But he is now back scoring for club and country.
It is getting harder and harder not to make a case for Benzema finally being voted the best player in the world.
He got a hat-trick that saw Real fight back to beat Paris St Germain 3-1 and reach the Champions League quarter-finals 3-2 on aggregate followed by another treble against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and the decisive goal on a breathtaking night against the Londoners at the Bernabeu that took his side to the semi-finals.
After the double he scored in the first leg of the semi in Manchester, Benzema leapfrogged Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski to become the top scorer in this term's Champions League with 14 goals in 10 games.
It has been Benzema's season - and it isn't over yet.
(Reporting by Fernando Kallas; Editing by Ken Ferris)