LONDON — If this is not the best forward in the world, please show us the player who is superior to Karim Benzema. What a treat that would be; it must be a remarkable player indeed who is capable of bettering the performance Real Madrid’s talisman just delivered to scythe through a defense so famed for its obduracy on nights like Wednesday night.
What separates the best from the merely great is their ability to repeat their brilliance. No one is as reliably consistent as Benzema on the biggest stage. There are plenty of strong contenders for the individual crowns that will come at the season’s end, but what they have to argue against is remarkable. Two hat tricks on the biggest stage that may have irrevocably turned the ties in Madrid’s favor. First against Paris Saint-Germain, the Harlem Globetrotters of the Champions League, and then the competition’s reigning champions Chelsea. No one is shining brighter amid the galaxy of talent.
Similarly, it is hard to imagine how this Madrid team might hope to contend for the Champions League without Benzema. That is not to say that they were without quality on the night: Thibaut Courtois was obdurate amid a hailstorm of abuse from his former supporters, Federico Valverde an all-action presence down the right and the old handers of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were able to strangle the game when needed. That would have been enough to keep them in the game against a Chelsea side who, Kai Havertz aside, deeply underwhelmed. But it was Benzema who elevated Carlo Ancelotti’s side to a level that their opponents could not reach.
Certainly this is the best version of him that Ancelotti, his coach when he the Frenchman had to subsume himself in service of Ronaldo, has seen. “Karim Benzema is getting better everyday just like wine,” said the Madrid boss. “He’s more of a leader, more and more important in this team and squad and I think that’s what makes the difference. He has so much more personality, he knows he’s a very important player for us and he’s an example for everyone.
“Benzema is a really complete… not striker, player. For sure he helped the team a lot in possession, movement, he’s always in the right position to help us.”
When the time comes to pick the crowning moments of the many, many highlights of Benzema’s garlanded career, Wednesday’s brace of first-half headers will rank highly. These were a magnificent cocktail of technique, power and vision.
You could hardly blame Edouard Mendy for not seeing the first one coming. Benzema was yards behind the penalty spot. He could not quite meet Vinicius Junior’s cross in stride, thrusting his hips forward at the last moment to cannon the ball toward the net. In a flash he was hurtling to the few hundred star struck Madridistas. They might be treated to him on a weekly basis but they could scarcely credit what they saw.
Three minutes later, the entire ground could see it coming. This time Benzema’s flick off a Luka Modric cross seemed to hang in the night for an age without any doubt it was bound for the net. A sigh seemed to echo around Stamford Bridge, a lot of admiration mixed into the disappointment.
Men with 34 years on the clock are not supposed to be able to contort their bodies like that. Perhaps this was a message to those of us trailing him in the age stakes by a couple of years. A second summer may yet be on the horizon, that spell when you suddenly find yourself in your pomp, utterly at ease in your surroundings, with a self knowledge that allows you to achieve what might have been impossible a decade earlier.
Because certainly there was as much old-man ball from Benzema as there were displays of youthful vigor. Few strikers have cracked the Chelsea defense, one which is a master of stopping forwards getting the ball in the box. In response, Benzema simply moved elsewhere.
Wherever there was the most sizeable pocket between Thomas Tuchel’s back three and his two midfield sitters, Benzema would be provocatively positioned in the center of it, daring someone to abandon their post. Jorginho kept looking over his shoulder, for all the good it did him. Thiago Silva’s tendency was to drop deep and wait for the run that would inevitably come, but in doing so, he found himself without a head start.
Take your eyes off Benzema for a second and he would have vanished. As Madrid drove down the right in one attack, it seemed like he was going to stay close to Andreas Christensen, who had Vinicius Junior to worry about over his shoulder. Instead, he was soon peeling into the space ahead of Silva, who seemed altogether unaware. Had the move run out on a more favorable trajectory for his teammates, Benzema might well have been clipping the ball in at the near post.
Doubtless, it helped Benzema’s silent assassin act that Vinicius was so loudly present outside him, his every touch designed to heighten the agony of Christensen. When Tuchel withdrew him at the interval, it felt like an act of mercy, he himself would admit after the game that it was his fault that Reece James was not brought deeper to offer protection.
This was the sort of performance to leave Tuchel incandescent. Twice he declared the tie dead, bemoaning a side that has now conceded seven goals in its last two games. “We have to find our level back,” he said. “I don’t know where it is, since the international break. The first half is a repetition of the second half against Brentford. You cannot expect a result from this kind of performance.”
He will never know whether his switch to a 4-2-3-1 could have swung the game and the tie. Seconds after the interval, Antonio Rudiger and Edouard Mendy got their wires crossed. Benzema was on hand to pounce. It is surely no coincidence that these goalkeeping calamities happen so much around the great man. He is invariably live to what is going on around him, primed to escalate a nervy wobble into a full blown moment of chaos.
There are precious few teams against whom it is harder to chase the game than Madrid, masters of taking the air out of a contest with a good few minutes of meandering possession. There were still chances for Chelsea: Bending long-range efforts that flew over Courtois’ bar and two headers that Romelu Lukaku failed to even get on target, as though he were intent on further buttressing Benzema’s reputation.
He really didn’t need the help.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism