Benzema’s Bernabeu burden

A man in the Fondo Sur section of the Santiago Bernabeu was becoming increasingly agitated. He was watching his Real Madrid side limp towards a second successive home defeat against cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid. This had been a dismal collective performance by Los Blancos, yet it was clear where his frustrations were being directed.

“Benzemaaaggggh!!!!” he shrieked, eyes bulging, a look of furious exasperation etched across his face. After yet another mis-controlled pass went astray, he had clearly seen enough – he wasn’t the only one.

Moments later, it appeared the beleaguered striker seemed destined to escape the opprobrium of the Bernabeu crowd, with Alvaro Morata waiting in the wings to come on. It had been an extremely poor performance from Benzema, the nadir of what has been a wretched season to date. Benzema was glancing over at the touchline, clearly expecting his number to be up. When the change was finally made, the shrieks of rage around the stadium spoke volumes of just how far the player’s stock has fallen.

Instead of hooking Benzema, Coach Carlo Ancelotti decided to sacrifice Isco. The incredulity that rang around the Bernabeu made it impossible not to feel for the French striker. Ancelotti clearly wanted two strikers up front, but so negligible had Benzema’s contribution been, the home support were aghast at him remaining on the pitch.

If that weren’t bad enough – Morata’s arrival on the pitch was to exemplify exactly why the supporters were so irate. Where Benzema had been peripheral and sheepish all night, Morata was the embodiment of a bold, determined-and very nearly lethal-young marksman, who clearly feels his time is now.

Of course, Benzema retains a close relationship with Real number-two, Zinedine Zidane, and the retention of the 25-year-old has, at times, felt as if it were related to issues outside of football. Ancelotti has rightly been subjected to accusations of stubbornness in his refusal to replace Benzema. In the derby, it felt more like cruelty.

The striker returns to the Bernabeu this weekend having notched a couple of goals against Australia and Finland during the international break. The player spoke this week of recent struggles being: “the toughest of my career so far.” The intended narrative was simple enough to discern: ‘I know I’ve been rubbish, but now I’m back.’ 

If only it were so straightforward. Benzema’s goal against Australia ended a drought that lasted for 1222 minutes at international level, a barren spell that has cost him his place as the country’s first-choice striker. He has managed just two goals in eight League appearances for Madrid – missing a raft of chances along the way – and now faces an uphill battle to win over the Bernabeu faithful.

Saturday’s game at home to Malaga will be his first League appearance at home since that disastrous outing against Atleti. It affords the player a chance at redemption. And yet, at Real Madrid, you get the sense that only the strongest survive the expectations of a complex hierarchy and an unforgiving crowd.

Benzema suddenly finds himself at a crucial point in his career at the age of 25. The question is – was his poor form just a blip or is it a more deep-seated problem? Saturday’s outing against Malaga may point us towards the answer.

You can follow Sean Duffy on Twitter: @seanied8