Thursday, April 15

‘Special’ Karim Benzema defies time and criticism to lead Real Madrid | Real Madrid

SINCEinedine Zidane does a nice line with soft smiles and softer put-downs, little glimpses of how complicated the whole media deal can be at times. But often he seems to enjoy it too and this was one of those moments, which is often the case when he talks about Karim Benzema, the striker who sees him not only as a coach, but as his “big brother”. If there is a player who awakens warmth and enthusiasm in Zidane, something almost paternal as well, it is Real Madrid No. 9 that is not No. 9.

It was the last weekend before the international break and Madrid had just defeated Celta de Vigo. Benzema had scored the first two goals, decisive again. After the game, Zidane was asked about his compatriot, who has been almost solely responsible for Madrid’s offensive performance this season and last. “You did the right thing by asking,” he replied, “because he is the host. “

The host it is the host of communion, the consecrated bread, the body of Christ. In the Spanish oath, a tool that Zidane uses often and in the form of an apology to express his enthusiasm when other words fail him, means damn brilliant, and it’s not bad. “For people who like to watch football, Karim is a gift,” continued the Madrid coach. “We enjoyed him and his teammates too. Karim makes the difference. “

It was a family line. “Special”, “a joy”, “spectacular” are all the words that Zidane has used to describe Benzema, each one delivered with a soft smile that makes it more genuine; There is a hint of discovery in his statements, as if he is seeing Benzema for the first time when he has been doing it for a decade and working with him for almost as long. There is something almost astonished, pure in their reactions, an affection built through friendship and football, something shared in the way they watch the game.

“Anyone who likes soccer likes Karim,” says Zidane. After Madrid beat Atlético earlier in the season, he was asked to describe Benzema in one word. As it turned out, he chose two: “The best.”

Right now, at Real Madrid there is little doubt that this is the case; not long ago, few would have said so. Less than it should.

12 years ago Florentino Pérez appeared at Benzema’s house in Lyon. He was not the only player who arrived that year: so did Kaká and especially Cristiano Ronaldo, which somehow explains Benzema’s evolution and the judgments on him. Ronaldo is gone, as is Gareth Bale, for now at least. Only Benzema remains, which also helps explain it.

Perhaps his continued absence from the French team contributes, both to the lack of noise around him and to the quality of his performances with Madrid. Originally excluded due to allegations that he was involved in a blackmail case against his partner Mathieu Valbuena, he later hinted that racism played a role, an accusation that infuriated Didier Deschamps. This week he was asked again; in response, he laughed, accused his foreign inquisitor of having been questioned by French colleagues, and closed the press conference.

Karim Benzema scores against Eibar on Saturday as Real Madrid prepared for Tuesday's quarter-final match with Liverpool with a 2-0 La Liga win.
Karim Benzema scores against Eibar on Saturday as Real Madrid prepared for Tuesday’s quarter-final match with Liverpool with a 2-0 La Liga win. Photograph: Quality Sport Images / Getty Images

At the end of Celta’s game, a few days before, when most of his players were heading to the national team, but Benzema was returning to Madrid to prepare for Liverpool, they asked Zidane about the man he had just called the body of Christ. . “You don’t understand it, I don’t understand it,” he replied, “but as a Madrid coach he is better for us.” Zidane has called Benzema the man he says is the best French striker of all time, but his career has been more of a club than a country.

Benzema has won three Leagues and four European Cups and has scored more than 250 goals. Which, some may say, some say, in fact, there aren’t that many when you play for Madrid for over a decade. Especially since, meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo created a benchmark that was beyond Benzema, who has never been La Liga’s top scorer. He wasn’t even Madrid’s top scorer until the last two years.

But that probably misses the point, including the fact that you don’t survive 10 years and seven coaches at Madrid without being a very good player. This is not a place that forgives failure. And now, at 33 years old, Benzema is scoring more goals than before: partly because he has to, or perhaps because he is allowed to, inviting the conclusion that before it was not so much a failure in him as a decision for the elders. all right.

Not that his stats were bad anyway. He has 70 goals in the Champions League. Only four players have scored more and two of them are within reach of a hat-trick. You can probably guess who the other two are: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the men who broke the rules and make Benzema’s comebacks in the league, a goal every other game, that old measure of efficiency, they look a little light.

Only three men have scored more goals for Real Madrid. That is Real Madrid, possibly the greatest club in the history of football. Those men are Raúl, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ronaldo. And if Ronaldo scored that many, it was partly because of Benzema.

It’s a simplistic conclusion, perhaps, and Benzema’s disinterest has been exaggerated at times, to the point where he subsumed himself in the mission of helping others to score, especially the Portuguese. It has really improved; it’s not just about perception. There were also times when his numbers were really low for a striker, even one taking over from others: he scored 11 league goals in 2012-13 and 2016-17, five in 2017-18. And yet, it’s the way he sees it and there may well be something to that.

Benzema was the forward who became a facilitator, his role was to unite everything, create and vacate spaces for the men on both sides of him. “Players who help improve their teammates do

“I had this guy there who scored double, triple goals,” Benzema told former Madrid player, manager and manager Jorge Valdano during a recent interview. “I’m a footballer, so I say to myself ‘don’t worry, I’m going to put that idea of ​​scoring goals behind me to do what I have to do.’ I changed the way I played to play with him. Ronaldo’s departure has allowed me to play a different role. He scored 50, 60 goals a year and that’s how it suits his style. He was one of the best in the world and I was happy by his side ”.

He’s been happy without it too, and he’s been noticed too. Numbers do that. In 2018-19 he scored 21 league goals, in 2019-20 he scored 21, and this season he already has 18, without penalizing penalties. It has five in Europe. He has 11 goals in his last 10 games. That’s more than Kylian Mbappé, Erling Haaland and Ronaldo.

Those aren’t (yet) his highest totals, there were 21 in 2011-12, 24 in 2016-17, and they don’t fill the void left by Ronaldo, the relentless. This is the Madrid with the lowest score in 14 years. But there has never been a coherence like this on the part of Benzema, such a central contribution, nor such recognition or responsibility. A confidence in a man who is leaner, faster, more decisive, his goals come in a wide variety of forms and games, contributions are spread, they are not wasted.

There is also some toughness in him now, leadership, maturity. “It’s not that anything affects me,” he said recently, “I have feelings but I will never show my weaknesses, even if I have them.” There is vindication in those words, revealing that he felt misunderstood, and not just because of his father. Benzema has said that his father always focused purely on goals and therefore saw his son fall short but that he has finally conquered it, revealing: “Now he understands my football, not before.” The striker, and that’s not really the word, which could be the problem, he clearly believed that it was part of a larger fault: that people don’t get he. In fact, I didn’t get football.

That idea is also there in the defense of Zidane, the elevation of the discussion to a higher plane beyond the numbers. That was particularly clear when Zidane attacked Gary Lineker for judging Benzema overrated, even though this is a player rarely included in the conversation about the best forwards in the world. “A shame,” Zidane called him. “I don’t know if people think that a 9 has to score 50 goals. Karim is not going to score 60, but he will score 25 or 30 and score 30.

“People speak of Karim as a pure No. 9, a nine and a half, a 10; for me he is a bit of everything “, says Zidane,” I would define him as a total footballer “.

Or just football itself. There’s something about the wonder, the quality, the technique, the idea: playing the game for yourself, doing things that others just can’t. Solari said that Zidane “has hands for feet” and his head also works differently. When he gave an absurd and inspired heel assist last season, Benzema simply said, “Sometimes things come to me.” Zidane smiled and shrugged. “That’s Karim,” he said.

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