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It was far from a vintage display. Real Madrid beat Celta Vigo 2-0 on Saturday to keep in touch with Atletico Madrid at the top of the La Liga table, but their performance will not live long in the memory. Zinedine Zidane’s side deserved to win, but a possession figure of 41 percent was the lowest the club has ever recorded in a home victory under the Frenchman’s stewardship. It is just as well that everyone at Madrid agrees that results are more important than performances in this condensed campaign.
Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio got the goals that gave Madrid victory at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, where they continue to play their home games while renovation work is carried out at the Santiago Bernabeu. Karim Benzema did not get on the scoresheet and delivered a subdued showing, failing to land a single shot on target and missing two presentable chances.
Zidane was asked after the game if Benzema was suffering from fatigue. The striker has started 15 of his team’s 17 La Liga matches so far this term, with Raphael Varane the only outfield player who has been on the field for more minutes. Zidane dismissed those suggestions but admitted that Benzema was not at his best.
Madrid will hope it was a one-off. Benzema was their standout performer in last season’s La Liga title triumph and has been largely excellent in the first half of the current campaign. Once again, the experienced striker will be pivotal to Madrid’s chances of success in various competitions.
Benzema is now in his 12th season as a Real Madrid player. It is fair to say that he has not always been universally loved during his time in the Spanish capital. Even when Madrid was winning trophies aplenty, many viewed him as the weak link and wondered why the club did not replace him with a more prolific goalscorer.
That was always a simplistic interpretation of events. True, Benzema often scored fewer goals than other strikers at Europe’s major clubs. But he was the perfect foil for Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid’s main man whose own strike rate was aided by the presence of Benzema alongside him. With his intelligent movement, fierce work ethic, and terrific link-up play, the Frenchman was a facilitator first and foremost. He only scored five league goals in 2017/18, but Ronaldo got 26. Madrid also won the Champions League that season.
When Ronaldo left for Juventus at the end of that campaign and Madrid did not sign a replacement, many fans were concerned. Perhaps they were right to be: Los Blancos had a disappointing season and failed to win a single trophy save for the Club World Cup.
Yet no one could argue that Benzema did not step up. Freed from Ronaldo’s considerable shadow, the former Lyon frontman hit 30 goals in all competitions for only the second time in his Madrid career. Last season he scored 27 but was even more vital as Madrid won the La Liga title.
Benzema has clearly relished the opportunity to be the focal point of Madrid’s attack, a privilege that was denied to him during Ronaldo’s time at the club. But he has also benefited from the backing of Zidane, who has always been a huge fan of his. Indeed, the Madrid boss recently opined that Benzema was France’s greatest ever striker – high praise indeed given the country has produced Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, and Jean-Pierre Papin.
“I think so, yes,” Zidane responded last month when asked whether Benzema was playing better this season than he ever has for Madrid.
Most recently he’s been in his best form. What he’s doing recently, he’s been phenomenal. What’s yet to come? I think Karim can even get better than he is now – that’s what we all hope, for the team, for him, personally. On top, it’s his ambition. He wants to get better as well as a player. That’s very important.
It remains to be seen whether Benzema really can improve further; this is a player who turns 34 later this year, after all. But despite misfiring against Celta Vigo, Benzema has indeed been tremendous for most of the season to date. Not only has he scored eight goals in 15 league appearances, but he has also provided five assists. Benzema is averaging a goal every other game but has lost none of his ability to bring the best out of his team-mates.
If the reports are to be believed, Madrid wants Erling Haaland to succeed Benzema as their first-choice center-forward. Borussia Dortmund is unlikely to let their prized asset go this summer, but Madrid is said to be confident of bringing him to the club in the summer of 2022. The fact Haaland idolized Ronaldo as a kid will no doubt aid their attempts.
Until then, Benzema looks set to continue as the club’s No.9. He was undoubtedly the main reason for Madrid’s title triumph last term, with the Frenchman directly involved in 29 of their 70 goals – a whopping 41.43 percent. That percentage has increased to 43.33 this time around, with Benzema having had a hand in 13 of Madrid’s 30 strikes to date.
Atletico is the bookmakers’ favorites to win the title this term, with DraftKings Sportsbook offering -112 on Diego Simeone’s side topping the table. Madrid is next in line at +140, but those odds would no doubt lengthen if Benzema was ruled out with injury for a significant period of time.
He has been written off countless times in his Madrid career, but Benzema is still instrumental to the club he has represented in more than 500 games. He might not be in Ronaldo’s class, but Benzema has taken the Portuguese’s mantle and become Real Madrid’s talisman.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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