For me, he is the best, it is very clear.
– Zinedine Zidane when asked if Benzema was the greatest French striker ever.
In the summer of 2009, Real Madrid were in a state of crisis, the remnants of the Galacticos project were finished, and the Dutch triumvirate of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Rafael Van Der Vaart were not gelling into a team that could challenge Barcelona, who were now all-conquering under Pep Guardiola.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s high-performance years were over and the forward line needed rejuvenation. Florentino Perez got the cheque book out and he was by no means afraid to use it. Enter Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema. The players who would topple the mighty Barcelona and bring Champions League glory back to the Bernabeu. Twelve years on only one name remains, and his sheer resilience to have survived through such an intense period is an amazing achievement in the cut-throat universe of Real Madrid.
Karim Benzema is the archetype figure of a controversial footballer – and with good reason. He has been at the centre of at least two high-profile legal cases and has had a bitter relationship with France manager Didier Deschamps. So how has a figure clouded in such controversy managed to stay in arguably the most high-pressure position in club football- Real Madrid’s striker.
When a young Karim Benzema was first introduced to his Lyon teammates for the ever-present football tradition of the anxiety filled singsong, his peers made fun of him. He turned to players like Juninho and told them “Do not laugh, I’m here to take your place”. Such steely confidence can be commonplace among youth players, but it is rarely followed through so quickly.
It’s easy to forget now but in 2009 Benzema was the hottest prospect in terms of strikers in Europe. His performances with Lyon had earmarked him for a move to a super club and Alex Ferguson had him in his sights before the French star jumped at the chance to go to Madrid and follow his idol, the Brazilian Ronaldo.
Benzema had already won four French league titles before his move to Madrid and was the dominant figure at Lyon. He went to Madrid at only 22 which may have been daunting in the the sink or swim atmosphere and invasive media scrutiny. He overcame this phase and eventually settled into the frontline with Cristiano Ronaldo as they grew to appreciate and compliment each other’s game. The pressure cooker environment of Real Madrid however, means you always have to look over your back.
Unlike the relationship between Leo Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez, which was warm and almost schoolboy-like, Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Benzema looked more like work colleagues, they all had the same goal in mind but went about it in completely different ways. The Frenchman mainly took on the support role in those years and allowed the stars on the wings to do the business, a sacrifice not unlike that of Roberto Firmino at Liverpool. He didn’t seem to mind, and he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to achieve those Champions League triumphs.
What made that team serial winners was the ability to show up in big games, whether it was a towering Sergio Ramos header, a thundering Ronaldo strike, or Luka Modric simply demanding the ball and running the game, they always found a way to win, sometimes it was ugly, and sometimes it was beautiful liquid clear counter-attacking.
When the breakup came as Ronaldo looked to bolster his goal-scoring record in Italy, and Bale became persona non-grata for Zidane, Benzema was left to pick up the pieces and regenerate himself and his role as a striker. The emphasis is now on him to score again as it had been in those Lyon days, Hazard simply cannot be relied on with his current injury woes. It’s a role he seems to relish in now that he has all those years of experience to call upon, and is arguably in the best form of his Madrid career.
Benzema has 18 goals in 25 La Liga appearances this season. The 33-year-old is still proving that he can be a sharp and fluent finisher. His recent player of the month award in La Liga is a testament to his longevity and a reflection of his current form.
Luis Suarez, who is having a renaissance season, has only one more goal having played the same number of games. And Benzema has six assists compared with only two for the Uruguayan. He has made more than twice as many passes and dribbles and more surprisingly has won 174 duels as opposed to 154 for Suarez, proving his ability to outmuscle opponents.
Most impressively though is Benzema’s defensive quality, having made an astonishing 21 blocked shots and 51 recoveries over the course of the domestic season so far. Thus proving his value all around to Madrid. His involvement in the game is why Madristas value him so greatly.
Zidane has recently said of him:
He is a more complete player now than he used to be. He is not a pure number 9, he doesn’t only think about scoring goals and that’s what I love about him.
And to remember, these were the fans that booed Cristiano Ronaldo, which seems crazy until you understand the DNA of the club that is. Hard work and determination is demanded at Madrid, it’s always been viewed as the cornerstone of success. One of the main reasons the Galacticos project failed on the pitch is because they sold Claude Makelele, the player who did the dirty work and made the team of superstars tick. Benzema simply could not get away with being a goal hangar at Madrid, he would have been thrown out years ago if he had been.
Staying at Real Madrid for 12 years, however, is his greatest achievement of all, in a club so ruthless. Often overshadowed by Ronaldo and Bale, he was the glue that held those egos together.
Benzema has no one outstandingly spectacular ability, he’s not the fastest nor most skillful, it’s his mental strength that sets him apart. More-so his adaptability and his football IQ, he does whatever the manager asks of him, and this is why he has remained at the club so long.
Despite his public persona, his playing style is egoless. He sacrificed much of his career for Ronaldo, similarly to Wayne Rooney who did at United because he knew that being a team player was the best way to win. Often he would drift out to the left to let Ronaldo get in better goal-scoring positions, or drop deep to drag centre-backs out of position to create the space in behind. Zidane is also aware of this and speaks highly of his contribution.
He loves to combine with his teammates and create chances for them but he also knows how to score goals and he does what the team needs the most. That’s what Karim is all about.
The recent great Real Madrid team is not talked about in the same way as Pep’s Barcelona, which is understandable in a sense, they played a brand of football that will be remembered for generations, but they never won three Champions League titles in a row like Zidane’s team did.
As architects often say, form follows function, and that Madrid team won four Champions League titles in five years, proving that pragmatism and adaptability can be underrated attributes in the game.
Under Zidane they do look like a team in transition, perhaps another great rebuild is on its way, like the one constructed in the summer of 2009. This may also be the final Madrid season for Benzema and possibly Luka Modric with both linked to moves to Lyon and Inter. As he faces into his 12th season of Champions League football with the Spanish megaliths, this may be the last dance for Modric, Kroos, Ramos, and Benzema, and would you really bet against them going on and winning the damn thing.
As a man courted in controversy Benzema will always be tied up in what happens off the pitch, and maybe time will prove that he deserves to be. Judging him purely on what happens on the pitch, however, is an easier task, and he is embracing his time as the leader upfront and is in a rich vein of form having scored nine goals in the last seven games.
With one leg over the line against Liverpool; Madrid, Zidane and Benzema may be one step closer in their very own Last Dance.