Karim Benzema lived under the radar for years but the French forward now has pride of place at Real Madrid.
The striker is the team’s spearhead going into Wednesday’s Clasico, their primary threat, and if Barcelona stop Benzema, they may stop Madrid, who have become dependent on their centre-forward.
So much so that until Benzema scored a dramatic equaliser in the 95th minute against Valencia at Mestalla on Sunday, the player who had come closest for the visitors was goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
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Benzema powered home the rebound after the Belgian’s header was kept out by Jaume Domenech, earning Madrid the point that keeps them neck-and-neck with Barcelona before their Camp Nou showdown.
For the best part of a decade, Benzema played second fiddle, working in the shadows as Cristiano Ronaldo’s assistant, but over the past year-and-a-half, the former Lyon man has blossomed into the killer No. 9 that always lurked somewhere beneath the surface.
Benzema has become Madrid’s predator and that is reflected in his standing as the league’s joint-top scorer on 12 goals, alongside Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi.
These are the circles Benzema moves in now, and, on the brink of turning 32 the day after the Clasico, he nestles among the elite.
Until last year, that would never have been considered the case, despite his sterling work to supply Ronaldo with space and opportunities.
The Portuguese forward, Madrid’s all-time top scorer, rightfully ruled the roost at the Santiago Bernabeu, but an unfortunate side-effect was that it took Benzema out of the limelight.
Some of the work the forward did in wide areas or inside the penalty area which enabled Ronaldo to be so lethal went unnoticed, because Madrid’s gleaming No.7 was an attention magnet.
And with so many other tasks on his plate, Benzema rarely was able to take the goalscoring reins himself.
It was under Carlo Ancelotti that he gave up his role as a striker to help glue together the feted “BBC” – Gareth Bale, Benzema, Cristiano – attack, a key component of Los Blancos’ success in recent years, including four Champions League wins in five years and the 2016-2017 La Liga title.
After Ronaldo walked out in July 2018 to sign for Juventus, Benzema was left as Madrid’s best bet to play at centre-foward under new coach Julen Lopetegui.
Back in his natural position, for a while it seemed like he had forgotten how to play in the middle, how to be the rapier which slides through the chink in the armour to hurt opponents.
Bit by bit, though, things clicked back into place and now Benzema is Madrid’s cutting edge.
For much of last season – an unqualified disaster – Benzema kept Madrid’s head above water.
With 30 goals in all competitions, he obtained a career best behind only his tally of 32 in the 2011-12 season, with Jose Mourinho in charge.
The Portuguese coach had labelled Benzema a “cat” in 2010 and not the hunting dog he wanted.
“I’m not a cat anymore, now I’m a lion,” said Benzema after his transformation in the following years, and he has regained the predatory instincts which appeared lost in the interim years.
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This season Benzema has 16 goals already, from 21 matches, and is on course for it to be his career-best campaign.
Madrid have always been happy to give the ball to Benzema, who is relaxed and confident in possession, but the difference is now he’s in the areas where he can do instant damage.
This season he has been brutally effective and without him Madrid would be lost.
Benzema’s goal earned them a 1-1 draw with Real Valladolid, his brace saw them beat Levante 3-2, and he scored the only goal as Madrid toppled Sevilla 1-0.
The Frenchman struck twice in the 2-2 draw with Paris Saint-Germain, and nabbed the equaliser against Valencia.
On top of his other goals in big wins over Real Sociedad, Eibar, Leganes, Celta Vigo, and Galatasaray, these are the strikes which have earned Madrid precious points.
“He is one of the most underrated players in the world,” said PSG coach Thomas Tuchel, correctly. Benzema has one La Liga player of the month award to his name, from October 2014.
Despite his stellar Real Madrid form, it seems there is no France recall in sight for the forward. That may be a positive in the long run for Los Blancos, with Benzema getting a handy rest in the international breaks.
His international exile is related to prior off-field behaviour rather than anything on it, because on current form there are few better players.
Barcelona’s defence will be aiming to keep Madrid’s lion in his cage, like Atletico Madrid managed to in the capital derby in September, one of only five teams to deny him this campaign in La Liga.
At times this season, it has been Benzema and 10 others for Real.
“I want to win this league title and, if I can help my team-mates with play and with my words, I will do it,” said Benzema.
“[Playing at] the Camp Nou is always the most important game of the season. Let’s hope we win.”
Being realistic, that probably depends on you, Karim.