Karim Benzema shines again

Karim Benzema scored and provided two assists as Madrid made it five straight wins in all competitions by beating Eibar 3-1 in La Liga on Sunday.

It was the 30th time the Frenchman has scored and assisted in the same La Liga game. Only Cristiano Ronaldo (44) has done it more often for Madrid in the 21st century.

Benzema looked in the mood right from the start of an action-packed first half, the striker scoring and then teeing up Luka Modric in the early exchanges, before also having an effort disallowed for offside soon after Kike Garcia’s stunning effort gave Eibar a lifeline.

Eibar certainly had their chances to clinch what had seemed an unlikely draw, but failed to take their opportunities and were punished again when Benzema played through Lucas Vazquez to wrap up the points in stoppage time.

Zinedine Zidane had been under intense pressure at the start of December due to a run of poor results, but the win at Ipurua was their fifth on the bounce across all competitions and leaves them on the tail of bitter rivals and pacesetters Atletico Madrid.

His tried tested players have delivered him the best when it mattered and now, Real Madrid can dream big.

With no Cristiano Ronaldo around and Gareth bale having an off-time, Zidane invested faith in his center-forward, Benzema, despite all the criticisms, which always haunted the French forward. Benzema paid back the faith put in him and until now, he has proved himself one of the best forwards in the history of Real Madrid.

Still, he is scoring goals and age is just a number for Benzema.

The Nine and a Half striker 

In addition to his goalscoring, Benzema is known for his willingness and ability to drop into A creative, skillful, quick, agile, and prolific forward, who is good in the air and capable of playing off the shoulders of the last defender, Benzema has been described as an “immensely talented striker” who is “strong and powerful” and “a potent finisher from inside the box” with either foot, as well as his head, despite being naturally right-footed.

An atypical number 9, although he is usually deployed as a center-forward, and can operate as an out-and-out striker, Benzema is also capable of playing in several other offensive positions and has been used on the wing or even behind the main striker as a number 10 or deep-lying forward.

deeper or wider positions, and either link-up play with midfielders, or use his strength and technical ability to hold up the ball with his back to goal to provide assists for teammates, courtesy of his vision, creativity, passing, and eye for the final ball; because of his playing style, he has been described as a “nine and a half” by the critics.

In Real Madrid, Benzema has also been praised by pundits for his work-rate and tactical intelligence off the ball, as well as his positional sense and attacking movement as a forward, which often draws opposing defenders out of position, and in turn, creates spaces for his teammates; as such, he formed a strong offensive partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo during the latter’s time with the club.

Indeed, Benzema’s movement drew defenders away and created space for Ronaldo to make attacking runs into the center of the area from the left-wing, which essentially saw the Frenchman act as a false 9!

He was a promising youngster since he kicked the ball long ago.

The boy from Lyon

Benzema was born in the city of Lyon, France to French nationals of Algerian descent.

As a practicing Muslim, he observes fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. His grandfather, Da Lakehal Benzema, lived in the village of Tigzirt, located in the northern town of Beni Djellil in Algeria before migrating to Lyon, where he eventually settled in the 1950s.

Benzema’s father, Hafid, was born in Tigzirt, while his mother, Wahida Djebbara, was born and raised in Lyon; her family originated from Oran. Benzema is the third youngest in the family and grew up with eight other siblings in Bron, an eastern suburb of Lyon.

His younger brothers Gressy and Sabri are also footballers.

The former currently plies his trade at the amateur level with Vaulx-le-Velin in the Division d’Honneur, the sixth division of French football, while the latter plays in the youth academy of a club in the family’s hometown of Bron.

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Benzema began his football career at his hometown club Bron Terraillon SC at the age of eight. While at the club, he was nicknamed Coco by friends and, after scoring two goals in an under-10 match against the Lyon youth academy, began attracting attention from the biggest club in the city.

According to Serge Santa Cruz, who was president of Bron Terraillon in the 1990s, Lyon officials had visited him directly in an attempt to sign the youngster; however, Santa Cruz refused.

After talking with Benzema’s father, the club allowed the player to undergo a trial with Lyon.

Following the trial, Benzema officially joined Lyon and was inserted into the club’s academy.

When Benzema was growing up as a footballer, Ronaldo O Fenomeno was ruling the roost in world football, which encouraged the Frenchman very much.

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He said in an interview, “When I was younger, the way Ronaldo played had an influence on me. For me, he’s the best striker of all-time. I watch videos of him and try to do what he does, but it’s not easy. It’s impossible to pull off the same moves as he did.”

Benzema quickly ascended up the youth categories in the academy.

He served as a ball-boy during Lyon senior team matches and performed well in school being described as a student who was “discreet and respectful.”

At the under-16 level, Benzema scored 38 goals in the Championnat National des 16 ans, the domestic league for under-16 youth players in France.

Ahead of the 2004–05 season, Benzema was promoted to the club’s reserve team, which was playing in the Championnat de France amateur, the fourth division of French football. Despite only playing with the team during the autumn campaign, he scored a team-high ten goals as the Lyon reserve team finished second in its group.

Benzema was called up to the senior team for the first time under manager Paul Le Guen during the break leading up to the second half of the season. As is customary with new players arriving at Lyon, the young striker had to stand up and speak to his new teammates, which at that time included the likes of Michael Essien, Sylvain Wiltord, Florent Malouda, and Eric Abidal.

While speaking, Benzema was subjected to jokes and laughter, which prompted the youngster to declare, “Do not laugh, I’m here to take your place!”

He, subsequently, made his professional debut on 15 January 2005 against Metz, appearing as a substitute for Pierre-Alain Frau. Lyon won the match 2–0 as Benzema provided the assist on the second goal scored by Bryan Bergougnoux.

He would subsequently sign his first professional contract, agreeing to a three-year deal.

The Lyon days

After making three more appearances as a substitute, on April 2, Benzema made his first professional start.

Benzema began the 2005–06 season under new manager Gerard Houllier. Under Houllier, he struggled for meaningful minutes due to the presence of newly signed Brazilian striker Fred, as well as Sylvain Wiltord.

But the opportunities came, he grabbed them.

Benzema made his season debut on October 2, 2005, in a league win over Rennes, appearing as a substitute. In December, he made his UEFA Champions League debut in Lyon’s final group stage match against Norwegian club Rosenborg.

On his competition debut, he scored his first professional goal. A month later, Benzema scored his first professional double in the match against Grenoble in the Coupe de France.

In 2006, Benzema scored his first professional league goal against Ajaccio.

His ability to score goals earned him more playing times in the 2006-07 season.

Benzema made his competitive season debut in the 2006 Trophée des Champions against Paris Saint-Germain. In the French Supercup, Benzema converted a penalty which drew the match at 1–1. Lyon later won the league curtain-raiser 5–4 on penalties.

Benzema opened the league campaign on a quick note scoring in the team’s first match of the season against Nantes.

Three weeks later, Benzema appeared as a substitute and scored two goals in the away win over Nice.

He also converted two goals in the Champions League group stage against Romanian outfit Steaua București and Ukrainian club Dynamo Kyiv.

But a thigh injury hampered his wonderful run.

He returned after 3 months.

Benzema failed to score a goal until the final league match of the season against Nantes as Lyon recorded its sixth consecutive league title.

In the following season, Florent Malouda, John Carew, and Sylvain Wiltord all left and this gave Benzema the opportunity to don the number 10 shirt and take the role to lead.

He responded in style.

After forming a special relationship with new manager Alain Perrin, he struck 31 goals in 51 games. He topped the league with 20 goals, scored four goals in the Champions League, one in the Coupe de la Ligue, and totaled six goals in six Coupe de France matches, helping Lyon win their first ever double.

Some of his more dazzling performances that season included a hat-trick against Metz, an equalizing goal in the 90th minute from a free-kick against Derby du Rhône rivals Saint-Étienne, and a goal against Lens that was nominated for goal of the season by fans.

In the Champions League, Benzema scored an important double against Rangers at Ibrox Stadium on the last matchday of the group stage. The 3–0 victory assured Lyon progression to the knockout rounds.

In the knockout rounds, Lyon faced Manchester United and Benzema scored from outside the penalty box in the first leg match which ended in a 1–1 draw and United eventually won the tie 1–2 on aggregate.

For his efforts that season, he was named the Ligue 1 Player of the Year, selected to the Team of the Year, and awarded the Trophée du Meilleur Buteur for being the league’s top scorer.

He won the 2008 Bravo Award given to the most outstanding young footballer playing in Europe and was also shortlisted by French magazine France Football for the 2008 Ballon d’Or award, eventually won by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Sir Alex Ferguson was impressed and wished to sign Benzema

Sir Alex Ferguson was impressed with Benzema after that clash against his side.

Rio Ferdinand has revealed the admiration Sir Alex Ferguson had for Benzema.

Speaking on BT Sport, Ferdinand said, “I love him, I played against him at Lyon and he was so impressive.

“Sir Alex Ferguson was desperate to sign him as a kid, and you can see why.”

“This guy has had a sustained amount of success at the top level.”

In the 2008-09 season, Benzema was shining like a star – he was scoring goals and the big clubs in Europe were monitoring his progress.

Real Madrid was among them.

At the age of just 21, he had already amassed just shy of 150 appearances for Lyon and netted 66 goals.

A BBC Sport report at the time says Zinedine Zidane recommended Benzema to Real Madrid after a deal for David Villa collapsed.

Karim Benzema and Sir Alex Ferguson. Image Courtesy: Mirror UK
Karim Benzema and Sir Alex Ferguson. Image Courtesy: Mirror UK

Real had just signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson says they tried to use that money to secure Benzema.

However, the Frenchman ultimately joined Real and Jean-Michel Aulas, later, disclosed the details of this tug of war transfer saga.

When Karim asked me about leaving Lyon I had received two offers: one from United and one from Real Madrid,” explained Aulas.

“Karim, just as [Nabil] Fekir did, came to see me and this showed that we had a very trusting relationship. He [Benzema] said: ‘My dream is to play for Real Madrid.’

“We sold him to Madrid even though United had made a superior offer.”

The legend of Real Madrid

On July 1, 2009, it was announced that Lyon had reached an agreement with Spanish club Real Madrid for the transfer of Benzema. The transfer fee was priced at €35 million with the fee rising to as much as €41 million based on incentives.

On July 9, Benzema successfully passed his medical and signed his contract, a six-year deal, later that afternoon.

He was presented officially as a Real Madrid player later that night at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, similarly to the previous signings of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Benzema made his league debut for Madrid on 29 August 2009 against Deportivo La Coruna and kick-started a glorious journey.

But it was never without ups and downs.

Manuel Pellegrini preferred Gonzalo Higuain in the lead striker role. To coincide with his benching, the striker was also being criticized by the Spanish media for his under-performance and difficulties settling in the country as he had not yet begun learning the Spanish language.

He was even declared the “new Anelka” by a Spanish newspaper Marca blogger, referring to former Real Madrid striker Nicolas Anelka who had a tumultuous year at the club before being sold.

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Benzema was defended by his compatriot Zinedine Zidane, who admitted “after two months, I was also criticized” and that Benzema was “a talented player and talented players in Madrid must win!”

In the carnage against Almeira, Benzema scored after coming in as a substitute.

Benzema responded to the criticism by stating, “I am totally integrated and very happy at Real Madrid and yes, I have improved my adaptation. I have a new home and I’m learning Spanish to understand myself better with my teammates.”

After nearly a month coming off of the bench, he started alongside Higuain away to Valencia on 12 December and responded by assisting on one of Higuain’s two goals.

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A week later, Benzema returned to the bench. On his 22nd birthday, he scored in a 6–0 home win against Real Zaragoza.

Following an injury to Higuain in early January 2010, Pellegrini inserted Benzema back into the starting lineup.

After failing to score in his first two starts in the absence of Higuain, against Deportivo La Coruna on 30 January, he scored a double in an important away win.

Following the return of Higuain, Benzema was relegated back to a substitute’s role and finished the campaign by making eight consecutive appearances off the bench.

The arrival of Jose Mourinho paved the way for Benzema to don the number 9 shirt.

The striker immediately drew the ire of Mourinho who declared to reporters during a pre-season media session, “Benzema must understand that he is extremely talented, but that in itself is not enough”, while also stating that “[Madrid] need a striker who is sparky, not one that is listless.”

Mourinho’s sentiments were later echoed by incoming France national team coach Laurent Blanc who acknowledged that Benzema was “not used to working.”

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Blanc also stated that the striker needed to shed weight in order to fulfill his potential.

Following the arrival of Emmanuel Adebayor on loan, Benzema went unused in two consecutive league matches in February 2011. He returned to the starting lineup on 19 February and embarked on a run in which he scored ten goals in eight matches.

He finished the campaign second on the team behind Ronaldo with 26 goals as Real Madrid captured the Copa del Rey giving Benzema his first honour with the club.

For his performances during the campaign, particularly during the second half, Benzema was praised by Mourinho, club officials Florentino Pérez and Emilio Butragueno, as well as national team manager Laurent Blanc.

Prior to the start of the 2011–12 season, Benzema, taking the advice of compatriots Blanc and Zidane, ventured to Merano, Italy, to attend a high-performance clinic where he underwent treatment to reduce his weight.

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The spell at the clinic was ultimately a success after the striker arrived at pre-season 8 kilograms lighter. While at the clinic, Benzema also underwent physical training to build up his muscle mass.

His most impressive tally came during the 2011-12 campaign as his 32 goals helped Jose Mourinho’s side to a La Liga Santander triumph and in the following season, he scored 24.

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The arrival of Gareth bale in Real Madrid led to the formation of the famous trio – BBC and despite being overshadowed by the great Cristiano and charismatic Bale, Benzema never stopped scoring and assisting.

In the memorable 2013-14 season, he scored 22 goals and was a vital cog of that team of Carlo Ancelotti, which essayed the La Decima.

After the departure of Ancelotti, Madrid faced a transient off-period, but as soon as Zidane took over, the Los Blancos experienced a period of absolute purple patch and Benzema shone greatly alongside his star teammates.

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Real won the Champions League three times in a row, won the La Liga title, Copa del Ray, and World Club Cup Championship.

Real entered a transition period where they witnessed the departure of Cristiano and Zidane, Lopetegui and Santiago Solari getting sacked, and Zidane taking over the job of head coach again.

Benzema maintained his fitness and composure and gave his all for the club.

Marca stated, “Benzema understands exactly what it takes to succeed at a club like Real Madrid. Both he and Sergio Ramos are the leaders of the group and players and they understand exactly what is expected of them and the rest of the squad.”

“Those at the club knew that the Frenchman would get back to his best. They knew this because they could see how meticulously he prepares and the professionalism he has – football is everything to Karim Benzema.”

“His work rate and dedication are far better than when he arrived at the club. Improving and working day after day is almost an obsession for the forward and has seen him turn himself into a physical specimen. He is the driving force behind this Real Madrid side at the moment.”

“Club president Florentino Perez has always believed in Benzema. He’s never for a moment considered letting him leave the club, even when he was going through his worst spells. Zinedine Zidane even came out and publicly said that he was France’s best ever striker.”

“The hard work he is putting in on and off the training ground is plain to see. He’s only missed five of Real Madrid’s last 109 league matches and has scored 259 goals in 529 matches for Los Blancos.”

After a brilliant 2019-20 season, Benzema is showing the same intent in this season too.

“Benzema is a match-winner because what he’s doing is on a different level, not just because of the goals,” Zidane told the press after last night’s victory over Eibar.

“I always repeat myself saying the same thing about Karim. It’s not only his goals; he’s a focal point in our game. He’s very important for us and when he scores, it’s even better, obviously, but he’s very important for our team.”

In the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, many shining stars have gone unnoticed, while there are misunderstood and underrated customers, who continue to deliver as a genuine team-man.

The way he was ignored by the national team, still hurts and the World Cup campaign in Russia could have been the perfect reward for his hard work and dedication.

Benzema is one of the underrated forwards in modern football.

But the time has come to give the man the due credit.

Note: Information gathered from Wikipedia