There were a lot of smiles in the Bernabéu on Tuesday night. One of them belonged to Karim Benzema, as infectious as ever.
It’s been a rough season for the forward. The Frenchman turned 30 in December. Age may be just a number but 30 is a number that holds the power to make any elite sportsperson shudder with trepidation. What will perturb Benzema more, however, is the fact that he’s headed towards his lowest-scoring season since his first at Real Madrid.
Turning 30 can plunge footballers into an existential crisis. Players, especially those whose careers are built on speed and dynamism, can be excused for more intense periods of introspection once they’re the wrong side of 30, and it will be interesting to see how Benzema reacts to entering his fourth decade on the planet.
For Benzema spent much of his third being written off, being ridiculed, being looked upon as perennially inferior to Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s paragon of football perfection.
To look at Ronaldo is to behold the apex of physical achievement. Ronaldo has spent years sculpting the perfect body to supplement his natural football prowess. His vanity and relentless self-aggrandisement are grotesque to some, but his quest for perfection and appetite for continuous improvement cannot be questioned.
Benzema may not be a phenomenal specimen like his teammate, yet he has lasted as long at a club that routinely demands perfection and where the pressure is almost suffocating.
Signed in the same summer as Ronaldo, in 2009, Benzema has spent the last decade mastering a way to survive at the top. Whereas Ronaldo’s focus on individual accolades borders on an obsession, Benzema continues to contribute important moments to the history of Real Madrid.
There he was on Tuesday, scoring twice to send Madrid into their third successive Champions League final at the expense of Bayern Munich.
The first was a classic poacher’s finish, peeling away from David Alaba to the far post to meet Marcelo’s cross with an unerring header.
Then, in farcically fortuitous circumstances, Benzema had his second shortly after the restart. Chasing Corentin Tolisso’s under-hit back pass, the striker benefitted from a misjudgement by Sven Ulreich, the Bayern keeper, to obligingly slot home into the empty net.
Benzema’s brace put Madrid beyond Bayern’s grasp. James Rodríguez struck to make it 2-2 on the night but the holders progressed after hanging on for a 4-3 win on aggregate.
At the end, there was a touching moment between Ronaldo and Benzema. As the stadium erupted and the Madridistas toasted to another job well done, Ronaldo pointed to Benzema. The duo embraced and Ronaldo, who had two quiet nights by his standards in the two legs against Bayern, offered his congratulations to Benzema.
It was symbolic. Ronaldo has always been the star of this Madrid team. His level of performance since joining from Manchester United in 2009 has been freakishly high, his goalscoring feats utterly staggering.
He is deified by Madrid fans and rightly so – there may never be another player at the club quite like him. But, even the greatest can have their off days and, when Ronaldo has struggled, Benzema has often been the trusted lieutenant.
Ronaldo turned 30 in February 2015, in the middle of his highest-scoring season. He scored 61 times for the club that season. Benzema simply isn’t capable of producing those astronomical figures but, then again, nobody has ever really expected him to.
Benzema’s impressive numbers
Yet, look at the Frenchman’s career and it’s difficult to be unimpressed: 191 goals in 407 games for Madrid, two La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues. His 55 Champions League goals place him one behind Ruud van Nistelrooy, with only Raúl, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo further ahead.
To be the fifth-highest scorer in club football’s most illustrious competition is a mark of Benzema’s steady consistency over such an extended period of time. Plus, in only two of his eight seasons at Madrid prior to the current campaign has he failed to reach 20 goals.
Sure, one can argue that, with a roll-call of exquisitely creative midfielders providing him top-drawer service down the years, Benzema would always be expected to score as regularly as he has. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Finishing is as much about natural instinct and conviction as it is about technique. Benzema has found an effective combination of both.
The fact that he is still at Madrid, still scoring goals at critical junctures in Madrid’s season, is an exemplification of his longevity.
Benzema’s is a tale rich in the unglamorous qualities that managers gravitate towards: application, willpower and a desire to learn. It’s no coincidence that Benzema is working under his fifth manager at Madrid. His skill-set makes him indispensable, even to a club who, in 1998, famously sacked Jupp Heynckes eight days after he led them to their first European Cup success in 32 years.
Clubs often look for upgrades in attack in the transfer market, but since signing Benzema nine years ago, the only striker they have bought permanently was Álvaro Morata.
Once one of the hottest properties in world football, Benzema has been shaped by experience. In 2010, when Raymond Domenech omitted Benzema from his World Cup squad, L’Equipe ran with the headline: “Benzema’s time is finished.”
Indeed, it looked bleak for Benzema back then. After an underwhelming debut season with Madrid, Benzema lost his place in the Les Bleus squad as Mathieu Valbuena, Jimmy Briand and André-Pierre Gignac all travelled to South Africa.
Yet, L’Equipe’s proclamation of Benzema’s demise proved greatly exaggerated. He regrouped to score 26 goals in the following season for Madrid and was soon reinstated to the national side by Domenech’s successor, Laurent Blanc.
Almost a decade on, Benzema remains. Through a mixture of determination and survivalism, he has transformed himself since arriving from Lyon as a gifted but arrogant kid.
Against Bayern, it was noteworthy, not that Benzema scored his first goals in a month, but that he ran himself into the ground as Madrid clung to their precarious advantage. Benzema made seven recoveries, more than any other player on the pitch and more than he’s ever managed in a single game.
It was a measure of how Benzema has adapted to survive at Madrid. He isn’t just put in the team for goals, he’s there because he doesn’t shy away from the muck-and-bullets grittiness that’s often required to reach a Champions League final.
Benzema won’t be remembered by Madrid fans with quite the same level of affection as Ronaldo, but perhaps if the Frenchman scores in the Kiev against Liverpool, it can act as a potent reminder of what a great servant he’s been to the Spanish giants.