In the three tumultuous years that Jose Mourinho was in charge of Real Madrid he tried very hard to move Karim Benzema on. The Portuguese was so unimpressed with Benzema he once said in a pre-match press conference that he is “going into a match where he needed to hunt with a dog but instead has to hunt with a cat.”
Watching the Real Madrid and France striker, Benzema, at work these days you get the feeling you are watching a man at ease with himself and enjoying his job. In the last 2 years really.
Benzema has been described by France’s record goalscorer, Thierry Henry as the “most complete forward” in the game currently. The former France, Arsenal and Barcelona striker was speaking on TV the night of Real’s quarter-final second-leg match Vs Chelsea.
Back in 2008 I had been reading about this young striker making the headlines in France for then serial title winners, Lyon. It was when the France champions played Manchester United in that season’s Champions League quarter-final that it clicked that this young one was the real deal.
His goal for Lyon was so typical a Benzema type of goal here United did go through but he gave the United central defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic a torrid time over both legs.
His performance was so good that the 21yr old was strongly rumoured to be moving to Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted in his last book (get the name) that contacts were made with Lyon and the players’ representatives. “We did not stand a chance as soon as Zinedine Zidane came in and spoke on behalf of Madrid” the great man said.
Real Madrid flexed their muscles when in the summer of 2009 the club unveiled Ricardo Kaka of Brazil, Benzema and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. It is a testament to Benzema’s staying power that the French man has outlasted both Kaka and Ronaldo at Real.
In a stats-filled world of football especially of the last 7 years, watching the Benzema of the last 2 years reminds one of why we enjoy this sport. He is a beauty in motion despite how big, strong and athletic he looks. His movements, his first touch, his ability to play the one-touch football at speed can be exhilarating to watch.
Back in December of 2021, Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti had described Benzema as the best attacker in the world because “he has added great playmaking abilities to his goal numbers. He can score goals like Cristiano (Ronaldo) and Haaland but he is also very good at creating chances for others and making the team play”
Benzema seems as happy scoring goals as he is creating for others. Not for him playing as the typical, penalty-box number nine. Instead, you will find him exchanging passes with Casemiro deep in midfield – a brilliant ruse to keep the uninitiated unaware of when he arrives in the box the head home a cross in the same move.
One of the labels against him was that he was not professional enough to make the best of his outstanding gifts. That even when he was 29 (he is 34 now) he still carried on like a teenager. The biggest example of this was his involvement in the sex tape scandal with his former France team mate Mathieu Valbuena. This involvement cost him a place in the Les Bleus team that went on to win the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
He however returned to the squad and had an outstanding Euro 2020. His goal vs Switzerland was a work of art; absolutely futile trying to describe how he managed to take a truly sensational first touch to a Kylian Mbappe pass. The excellent second touch to dink it over the advancing keeper and into the net would have been impossible for many. It was the goal of the Round of 16.
France eventually lost out to Switzerland at Euro 2020 but recovered to win the UEFA Nations League where Benzema contributed this beauty Vs Spain in the semi-final.
It speaks volumes of Benzema strong character is that he recovered from not being part of the World Cup winning team to be playing probably the best football of his career.
The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo seems to have liberated Benzema, making him a leader for Real and he is the one carrying the Spanish giants to another LaLiga title and making it a double with the Champions League.
It is in Europe’s premier club competition that Benzema becomes a flowing volcano, consuming everything in the path of his Real Madrid. PSG could and should have been out of sight in the first half of the 2nd leg in the round of 16 but had only an Mbappe goal by half time.
By the 77th minute, Benzema’s outrageous, impudent contact of his laces onto a Marquinhos clearance was nestling into the bottom corner of Donnarumma’s net. That was his hat trick. PSG players and most of the watching world were stunned. Within a 12-minute spell he had dragged Madrid into the quarter-finals.
A quarter-final that brought him to London to face Chelsea. The European Champions had dismissed the Spaniards on their way to winning the cup and duly fancied their chances. Benzema had other ideas notching up another hat trick
Real’s great nemesis of recent years, Pep Guardiola brings his Man City to Madrid in the semi-finals of the Champions League with the Premier League side fancying their chances to make it to back-to-back finals.
Man for man you will not be far wrong to call the tie for the Premier League Champions and current league leaders but Benzema has shown in the previous two knock-out rounds that as long as he is available, Real are in with chance.