Soccer-Benzema's Real exit 'surprise to everyone', says Ancelotti

Soccer Football - LaLiga - Real Madrid v Athletic Bilbao - Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain - June 4, 2023 Real Madrid players throw Karim Benzema in the air after the match REUTERS/Juan Medina

(Reuters) - Karim Benzema's decision to leave Real Madrid after 14 trophy-laden years was a surprise, manager Carlo Ancelotti said, but insisted that the Ballon d'Or winner has earned the right to choose.

The 35-year-old striker will exit Real as a free agent in the close season, with the Frenchman linked with a big-money move to Saudi Arabian side Al Ittihad.

"His departure has come as a surprise to everyone, but it has to be understood. It was a last-minute decision," Ancelotti told reporters after Real's clash against Athletic Bilbao.

"Yesterday, he trained normally, and today he's taken this decision. We have accepted it. I spoke to him this morning, and he said he was leaving, and I understood.

"He's thought it through and his decision forms part of the transition of this club, which continues and will continue next year. We have time to reflect on what we have to do. We'll have a competitive squad next year."

Benzema netted a penalty to secure a 1-1 draw against Bilbao on Sunday in his final LaLiga game at the Bernabeu, ensuring they finished second in the standings ahead of local rivals Atletico Madrid.

Having joined Real in 2009 from Olympique Lyonnais, Benzema became the spearhead of the club's attack and their main goal-scoring threat after Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus in 2018.

Benzema scored over 350 goals for Real to sit second on the club's all-time scoring list behind Ronaldo and finishes his career at the Spanish capital with a record 25 trophies with the club, including five European Cups, four LaLiga titles and three Copas del Rey's.

"I bid him farewell in the knowledge that I've coached one of the greatest players in the world and one of the best strikers," Ancelotti said.

"We can't be pleased about his departure, but we have to respect his decision. He's earned the right to choose, and we all thank him for everything he's done for this club.

"He's been a legendary, unforgettable figure, and he'll remain forever in the memory of this club."

Real also announced the departures of forward Eden Hazard, attacking midfielder Marco Asensio and striker Mariano Diaz, leaving holes in the attack for club president Florentino Perez to plug in the close season.

(Reporting by Pearl Josephine Nazare in Bengaluru; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

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