When the Real Madrid of Sergio Ramos, Thibaut Courtois, Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos won La Liga in 2020t, I wonder whether you could have named the players who made the most appearances, the most starts and played the most minutes for Zinedine Zidane’s side?
The clues are that it’s one single player, he’s out of contract in summer 2022, his agent says that he’s keen to return “home,” he’s thrillingly rescued Madrid in each of the past two weekends and he’s possibly the most underrated, underappreciated player across the the entire elite of European football. Growing up, our man adored Brazilian Ronaldo because he wanted to be him. The hero of this tale felt an emotional affinity for Mike Tyson “because he and I fought our way up from nothing,” and his name is Karim Benzema.
You probably knew the 33-year-old Frenchman rescued the Spanish champions twice in the past week thanks to a total of three goals scored from losing positions against Atletico Madrid and Elche, but did you know that in Madrid’s surge to what was only their third La Liga triumph in 12 years, Benzema — not Courtois, nor Casemiro, Ramos, Modric or Kroos — was the one Zidane relied on most heavily? Starts, appearances, minutes and goals, obviously, no one had more than Benzema.
This week’s Champions League opponents, Serie A’s jack-in-the-box side Atalanta, will be aware that since Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Italy in 2018 — and it’s worth noting that Juventus have yet to beat Atalanta across five matches with Ronaldo leading their line — Benzema has played 131 matches in all competitions and scored 77 times. Even in these almost unparalleled days of goal-a-game strikers like Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Benzema’s stats since he took over the main striker role at the single most pressurised, political club anywhere in the world, are world class.
But bear in mind he’s now 33, and weigh in the fact that Benzema, largely, has been completely unsupported by a strike partner — someone to make space for him, take the burden off his shoulders with 15 or 16 goals of their own, someone to pin central defenders and play with their mind wholly on “What can I do to make it more likely for Benz to score?” Which is precisely what Benzema did for Ronaldo across nine successful years.
I think that cold, black-and-white stats alone demand that Los Blancos, when he eventually returns to Lyon (the club that still plucks at his heart strings), build this Rolls-Royce footballer a beautiful statue in the remodelled Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. But he’s so, so much more than his stats.
If you need either reminding or persuading, then here’s a couple of aides-memoire.
Go and take a look the winner Benzema scored from the weekend, to the shock and awe of the watching Atalanta scouts. Pound for pound, I think it might be the goal of the entire Spanish season so far.
Elche, one of La Liga’s basement clubs, have led for a good chunk of the second half, are tied at 1-1 and look sure of getting what will be only their first point against Madrid in Spain’s capital since December 1975. To add to the occasion, dropped points at home to this relegation candidate would be persuasive to the vast majority that Zidane’s side is going to be out of the running (potentially a 10-point deficit to Atletico if Madrid draw and Diego Simeone’s side win) to defend their title.
Into added time and Rodrygo heads the ball back to his French strike leader, but it forces Benzema to break his stride because the service is behind him and outside Elche’s penalty area. Madrid’s No. 9 gyrates, barely even seems to think, flicks the ball up to the young Brazilian’s position and he chests it forward into a space right in front of Benzema. His shot is instant, vicious, perfectly placed and nothing short of beautiful to watch (unless you’re Edgar Badia, Elche’s defiant and dismayed Catalan keeper).
Goal of the season? Do let me know your thoughts. Go watch it as soon as you’ve finished reading this.
I’m not attributing Atleti’s subsequent flop later that night to some sort of supernatural power Benzema possesses but, thanks to his goal and the league leaders’ hapless 0-0 draw against Getafe, a potential 10-point gap became a mere six. Plus, Real Madrid have the head-to-head advantage that would hand them the title should they finish top equal with Los Colchoneros.
I think if I were pushed to pick a favourite of the 269 goals via which Benzema has so far repaid Madrid’s now-ludicrously cheap investment of €35 million in 2009, when he was the fourth signing of Florentino Perez’s second presidential regime (following Ronaldo, Kaka, and Raul Albiol), then it would come from the winning run-in to their title victory last summer.
Valencia were visitors to the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium at Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground. It was only the second time Zidane’s second-placed side (they were pursuing Barcelona) had played without crowds at their training complex and Los Che arrived to wage footballing war — it was a toe-to-toe, no-quarter-asked-none-given match.
At 2-0 up, having scored the first, Benzema took Marco Asensio’s first-time clipped pass from his right on the run. He flicked it up and over Valencia’s Hugo Guillamon, watched it drop a little bit behind where he’d have liked it to be and then, without breaking stride, produced nothing less thrilling or powerful than an Exocet missile off the outside of his left boot into the top right corner of Jasper Cillessen’s goal. It was poetry to watch.
It’s not necessary here to do more than note that for all his heavenly football, Benzema’s no angel. Over the years there have been conversations with French and Spanish police about a range of issues. He’s still excluded from duty with the French national team, otherwise he — like Madrid teammate Raphael Varane — would be a world champion following Les Bleus‘ World Cup triumph in Russia three years ago.
This is supposition rather than certainty, but if Zidane does succeed Didier Deschamps in the role of France coach following this summer’s European Championship, as many suspect he may, then would that mean a recall for Benzema?
“He’s like my big brother, always giving me support and advice,” Benzema recently told Icon magazine when describing Zidane. Not a bad relationship to have with your boss. An important one, too, because it’s not all been bouquets of flowers and pats on the back for him at Madrid.
“There will always be highs and lows across a career but everyone has to confront challenges in their life,” is Benzema’s point of view. “My challenges are big ones but I’m strong enough and sufficiently psychologically robust to cope. I’m not a quitter.”
In that Icon interview, he spoke further about his character, admitting that “It’s not true that nothing affects me. I’ve got feelings like anyone else but I never show my weaknesses — even if I’ve got them. If things are bad and I’m down, I hide it.”
That isn’t the approach Benzema took when Jose Mourinho was in charge. With Madrid’s other centre-forward, Gonzalo Higuain, injured, Mourinho made his infamous remark that if “you have to go hunting but you don’t have a dog then you have to bring your cat because you can’t do it on your own.” The Portuguese manager was sending an unsubtle message up to his superiors that he wanted them to add Emmanuel Adebayor to the squad (they did) but Benzema knew he was the “cat” in question.
Once the next match was won, Benzema — even though he had only been at the club little more than a year — knocked on Mourinho’s door, made clear his wounded fury, demanded much more public and private respect and, after an hour of thrashing things out, cleared the air having, as he admits, “lost it” when he originally consumed his manager’s words. He’s tough enough, this fellow, as his goal and match tally since Ronaldo swanned off to Turin have shown.
Moreover, that Madrid’s occasionally rocky Champions League season is still alive and kicking (ditto their La Liga defence) is hugely due to this suede-headed, stylish, underappreciated French-Algerian forward.
People go on and on about Robert Lewandowski because Bayern Munich are on a roll right now, but Benzema is twice the footballer, and although there was heaps of publicity about the Poland international becoming the Champions League’s third-all-time leading goal scorer behind Ronaldo and Messi, I’d like it noted that Benzema is a mere three goals shy of Lewandowski and not one of his tallies is a penalty — the Bayern man has 12. Four of Benzema’s 69 strikes in this elite club competition have come so far this season: two quite crucially to rescue a draw against Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany and to defeat Internazionale 3-2 in Madrid.
He’s their go-to man but he may just be their go-to-Lyon man at the end of this season if the kite-flying campaign authored by Ronaldo and super-agent Jorge Mendes that the Portugal international might return to the Santiago Bernabeu takes shape. I’m sure that it’s in the plans of both Perez and his much cherished Benzema to eke out the final year of their contractual relationship, but it’s clear from the player’s representative, Karim Djazari, that Lyon — the city and the club — is very much on their minds.
“Karim’s torn between leaving the greatest club in the world and returning to Lyon, but it’s a question of time” Djazari recently explained. “He dreams of going back to play for Lyon and achieving great things. Wearing the captain’s armband there among a team of talented kids could be magical.”
Now, agents talk and dreams don’t always become reality. In this case, I pray they don’t, at least not anytime soon. It’s a joyful privilege to have Benzema demonstrating his near genius across Spain’s pitches week in week out. We are watching a true all-time great of the European game, and if Benzema happens to lead Madrid onward in the Champions League again this week and helps them retain their La Liga title, then it’s time for Perez to ignore the Frenchman’s age, accept that his playing and fitness level are at the level of a 27-year-old and ask Benzema to commit another two or three seasons of his balletic, beautiful, belligerent and brilliant football to Real Madrid.