At times last season, Karim Benzema’s days at Real Madrid appeared to be numbered. The Santiago Bernabeu crowd – perhaps the most demanding in world football – regularly got on the striker’s back as he struggled for goals, scoring just five in 32 La Liga appearances. With his 31st birthday on the horizon, the Frenchman was expected to depart in the summer.
Yet although Benzema was forced to field criticism from outside the club, he retained the backing of manager Zinedine Zidane and his team-mates. The former Lyon centre-forward may not have been scoring as often as he would have liked, but he was still contributing plenty with his selfless movement and link-up play. Crucially, he was still helping to bring out the best in Cristiano Ronaldo, whose 15 goals – a competition record – fired Madrid to their third Champions League in a row.
Nevertheless, it still felt like his employment in the Spanish capital was nearing an end – until, that is, Ronaldo and Gareth Bale used their post-match interviews following the 3-1 defeat of Liverpool in the season’s showpiece to cast doubt over their own futures. Ronaldo has made similar pronouncements in the past, but just a few weeks later his move to Juventus was confirmed. Freed from the Portuguese’s considerable shadow, Bale and Benzema suddenly had every reason to stay put.
It is still early days, but the former France international has hitherto grasped his opportunity with both hands. He scored his side’s first goal in the otherwise disappointing 4-2 defeat by Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup with a fine header, before helping los Blancos to a 2-0 victory over Getafe on the opening weekend of the La Liga season. Benzema then scored twice in a 4-1 success at Girona and grabbed another brace six days later, notching two second-half goals as Madrid beat Leganes 4-1 to maintain their 100 per cent winning start to the campaign.
Previously forced to play second fiddle to Ronaldo, which often resulted in him drifting out wide in both the attacking and defensive phases of play, Benzema has now been restored to a more conventional No.9 role. He still has the ability to combine with team-mates outside the box, but his principal duty this term is to put the ball in the back of the net as often as possible.
“Why not? Why can’t he end up with 30 or 40 goals?” Lopetegui said earlier this month when asked by a reporter whether his striker could finish as La Liga’s top scorer in 2018/19.
“The most important thing is the team. The goals come from the work of the whole team and someone has the honour, proximity and quality of scoring them. Benzema is a great player and always has been. What he’s doing is credit to him. He’s happy and is helping the team, and it’ll stay like this.”
Benzema is relishing his return to the spotlight at Madrid, proving that he still has plenty to offer in his 10th season at the club.
By Greg Lea