Since his arrival in the summer of 2009 few players have undergone as much scrutiny as Karim Benzema. While his teammate Cristiano Ronaldo has soared to greater and greater heights in his first four seasons at Madrid, the France international’s journey has been tumultuous at best.
The 26-year-old has been characterised as an unfit enigma, mindlessly marauding around the pitch without a purpose. The worst of the criticisms perhaps coming from his former Coach Jose Mourinho, who in his trademark style directed harsh words at the forward in 2012, hinting at Benzema’s laid back demeanour, describing it as “hunting with a cat.”
Though Benzema was able to right the ship that season with 35 goals, the next year criticisms of the same vein arose. At the beginning of this current season those murmurs turned into calls for his benching by the Santiago Bernabeu faithful. The Madrid boo boys clamoured for hometown hero Alvaro Morata to usurp the Frenchman in attack.
Chants of “Morata, Morata!” became the soundtrack at the Bernabeu as their patience began to run thin. Benzema’s anaemic performances did nothing to help either. Plagued by an inability to remain onside and some woeful finishing, it seemed as though the writing was on the wall for the former Lyon man.
Internationally things were just as bad. Under pressure after a 1,224-minute goal drought for Les Bleus it seemed as though everywhere Benzema turned he found himself under tremendous scrutiny. But he stayed the course, insisting to the media that he still believed in himself and would keep trying his best.
But it took one of the biggest games of the season, the first Clasico, for Benzema start to turn it all around. Dropped in favour of an unfit Gareth Bale, Benzema’s second half performance showcased a tenacity and liveliness that Madrid fans hadn’t seen since 2012. Though he couldn’t salvage anything for Madrid, the signs were encouraging. In hindsight this performance would be the catalyst to what could be a special year.
This season Benzema seems more settled, in no small part as well to Zinedine Zidane. who has been working with Benzema since the start of the year. Tactically, Carlo Ancelotti’s possession-based football seems to suit him more than Mourinho’s counter-attacking strategy.
He’s also been buoyed by the lack of competition as well. In recent years the constant shuffling between Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain seemed to dent his confidence as he rarely had a consistent run in the side. This season Ancelotti stuck by him even at the worst of times and this vote of confidence as paid off.
Now as Madrid ride an impressive 30-game unbeaten streak one would be hard-pressed to find anyone booing Benzema, especially in the wake of Madrid’s 6-1 drubbing of Schalke in Gelsenkirchen. On a personal level he’s already passed his goals total from last year [27 this season] with a third of the season to go.
Benzema’s intelligent play around the box and acute tactical awareness in attack has opened up space for the likes of Ronaldo and Bale to run riot. His form has been so good that Madrid have seemingly quelled their pursuit of another striker and Morata has been resigned to a permanent role on the bench.
A knock picked up on the weekend against Malaga will keep him out of Tuesday’s clash with Schalke, though he may have been rested anyway. That means he will come full circle on Sunday in the match that prompted his revival – El Clasico. With a chance to bury Barca’s title hopes Benzema will have to be sharper than ever.