Champions League: Karim Benzema and Real Madrid dominate end-of-season awards after Paris triumph

Real Madrid’s win over Liverpool in Paris on Saturday brought the curtain down on one of the most dramatic Champions League campaigns in recent memory – and capped one of the most astonishing runs to the trophy of all time.

Los Blancos edged a 1-0 victory against the Reds to lift their 14th European Cup, prevailing at the Stade de France thanks to Vinicius Jr’s winner after the interval.

The final triumph was the cherry on top of a glorious cake for Madrid, who completed miraculous comebacks against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City to make it to the French capital.

Real Madrid's Champions League final win vs Liverpool capped an incredible campaign

Real Madrid’s Champions League final win vs Liverpool capped an incredible campaign

Yet it was not only Carlo Ancelotti’s men who contributed to another remarkable season of Champions League football, with Villarreal defying the odds to go as far as the semi-finals and minnows Sheriff recording a famous win at the Bernabeu.

Europe’s elite club competition didn’t fail to disappoint this term, and now it’s over Sportsmail has dished out some end-of-season awards for the 48 teams who competed. 

Best player – Karim Benzema

By far the easiest award to hand out, a 34-year-old Benzema enjoyed an exhilarating Indian Summer this year to inspire Madrid’s latest European triumph.

After bagging five goals in as many group-stage outings, the French striker powered home back-to-back hat-tricks against PSG and Chelsea – the first coming in the space of 17 crazy second-half minutes – before netting the winner in their quarter-final second-leg victory over the Blues, a brace away at Manchester City and another winner in their semi-final decider against Pep Guardiola’s men. Some season.

He was harshly denied an opener in the final, too, with VAR somehow deeming him offside despite Liverpool’s Fabinho sending the ball in his direction. Regardless, he still finished as the competition’s top scorer with 15 goals.

A lot could change between now and the end of the year, but Benzema already appears a shoe-in for the 2022 Ballon d’Or.   

Karim Benzema was the competition's top player this season, producing a return of 15 goals

Karim Benzema was the competition’s top player this season, producing a return of 15 goals

The Frenchman's heroics were crucial in Madrid lifting their 14th European Cup this season

The Frenchman’s heroics were crucial in Madrid lifting their 14th European Cup this season

Best team performance – Real Madrid 3-1 Manchester City

Man City know better than anyone how it feels to snatch a priceless victory from the jaws of defeat with two last-gasp goals. Just ask Sergio Aguero.

This season, however, they were given a taste of their own medicine on the other end of a truly unfathomable comeback at the Bernabeu.

The Premier League club travelled to Spain for a semi-final second leg against Real leading 4-3, and when Riyad Mahrez broke the deadlock after 73 minutes in Madrid their ticket to Paris seemed certain.

That was before substitute Rodrygo knocked them out cold in the dying minutes; first turning the ball home from close range as the clock hit 90, before heading in from Dani Carvajal’s cross one minute later to force extra-time out of nowhere.

Then, having floored City with two thudding blows at the end of normal time, Ruben Dias’ foul on Benzema inside the box allowed the latter to sweep in the winner from the penalty spot in extra-time.

Quite how Madrid mustered the mental and physical strength to click their fingers and suddenly turn the game on its head remains the stuff of legend. It was a superhuman recovery which will go down in European footballing folklore.

Best individual performance – Karim Benzema vs Paris Saint-Germain

Another logic-defying fightback from Madrid came in the last-16, when Benzema scored three goals in the space of 17 second-half minutes to wipe Mauricio Pochettino’s side out.

PSG visited the Bernabeu with a 1-0 lead in the bank after an exquisite late strike from Mbappe edged the first leg. And it was Mbappe who again opened the scoring in the second, rifling the ball past Thibaut Courtois six minutes before half-time to double their advantage.

His double left Real needing two after the break to force extra-time, yet in the end they went one better and bagged three.

Benzema decked the Parisien club to the point of no return; first dispossessing Gianluigi Donnarumma and tapping into an empty net on the hour mark, before smashing home from inside the box 15 minutes later.

It was at that point when PSG self-imploded, first giving the ball away straight from the kick-off and then producing a dangerously feeble clearance across the box which Benzema gobbled up in expert fashion.

The French striker put his poacher instinct to devastating use, reacting quickly to send the ball into the bottom-right corner with the outside of his boot. You will be pushed to find a better Champions League hat-trick.   

Best goal – Lionel Messi, Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 Manchester City

While there were countless to choose from, Messi’s group-stage belter against old boss Guardiola was his first in PSG colours and an overdue reminder of the breathtaking powers he still possesses.

The Argentinian master picked up the ball on the halfway line and glided towards the centre of City’s area before feeding Kylian Mbappe on the edge of it.

With his first touch, Mbappe produced a neat backheel straight back into the path of Messi, whose sweeping left-footed effort rooted Ederson to the spot before nestling into the top-right corner.

It was a spectacular strike which got one of the game’s greatest ever players up and running for his new club, although Rodrygo’s quarter-final volley against Chelsea was a close second.

Best upset – Sheriff Tiraspol vs Real Madrid

After their cup-winning heroics at the business end of the season it is easy to forget Madrid were also subjected to a true European giant killing earlier in the campaign.

Moldovan club Sheriff Tiraspol, taking part in their first ever Champions League season, visited the Bernabeu in September as seismic underdogs up against one of the competition’s strongest squads.

Instead, as Real continued to find their feet under returning boss Ancelotti the debutants were able to sneak up under the radar and spring an all-time great upset in the Spanish capital.

Jasurbek Yakhshiboev’s header gave them a shock lead after 25 minutes, before Benzema cancelled out their opener from the penalty spot 20 minutes after the interval.

Nevertheless, with one minute of normal time to play Sheriff’s Sebastien Thill conjured up a moment which will stay with the club forever, firing a beautiful half-volley from the edge of the box straight into the top-left corner.

Madrid’s eventual success in the competition only makes their underdog triumph all the more incredible, with Sheriff now able to claim they toppled the European champions.   

Best goalkeeper – Thibaut Courtois

Madrid weren’t exactly water-tight in the Champions League this term, only registering five clean sheets in their 13 outings, though if it wasn’t for Courtois Liverpool would probably be European champions.

The Belgian goalkeeper was outstanding in Saturday’s final, keeping out the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane on nine occasions to comfortably claim the man of the match award. He was also on hand with crucial saves in their earlier wins over Chelsea and Man City.

And when taking a look at the overall stats, he also exceeded his fellow shot-stoppers by some distance when it came to shots saved, recording 61 throughout the tournament. Villarreal’s Rulli, second in the list, only managed 41 in comparison.

Courtois was a vital cog in Madrid’s latest champion machine, proving more influential than any goalkeeper this season.

Best defender – Eder Militao

At times in the campaign Madrid were cut open in concerning fashion, with Chelsea tearing them to shreds for the majority of their quarter-final second leg and Man City doing the same in the last four.

Though despite the overwhelming pressure often coming their way, Militao remained a consistent rock and leader at the heart of Ancelotti’s defence, producing a string of valiant displays to spare the blushes of a sometimes passive midfield.

He saved the best until last, too, performing out of his skin in the Paris showpiece to thwart Liverpool and record the most precious of clean sheets.

The Brazilian also recorded the joint-highest number of ball recoveries over the course of the campaign. 

Best midfielder – Luka Modric

In all honesty, no midfielder exuded regular quality throughout the tournament’s entirety, meaning this one was tough to pick. 

Yet at the age of 36, Modric rolled back the years to ensure he remained a key member of another Champions League-winning Madrid outfit.

The Croatian veteran was on hand with some pivotal contributions along the way, none more so than his phenomenal long-range assist for Rodrygo to volley home against Chelsea in the quarter-finals.

He went into the season with many questioning his effectiveness at the top level, but Modric finished it as a King of Europe once more. 

Best forward – Karim Benzema

As mentioned, Benzema was in a league of his own upfront in the 2021/22 campaign. 

Team of the season

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid)

Defence: Joao Cancelo (Manchester City), Eder Militao (Real Madrid), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Andy Robertson (Liverpool)

Midfield: Thiago Alcantara (Liverpool), Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Arnaut Danjuma (Villarreal)

Attack: Vinicius Jr (Real Madrid), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)

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