The Turning Point for Karim Benzema at Real Madrid

A confident Karim Benzema, absent from the European stage for some time

A confident Karim Benzema, absent from the European stage for some time

When I had Kartik Report contributor Dave Trotter on Inside the Six to talk about French football, one thing that we agreed upon implicitly but vehemently (so vehemently that it needed no follow-up question) was Lisandro Lopez’s superiority to Karim Benzema. Dave talked about it in response to a question about Lyon, saying how Lopez has been the toast of France through the first month of the Ligue 1 season. There is no doubt that Lopez’s creativity, leadership, and experience make him a better fit for Lyon, but over the last month it’s also become clear that Lopez is just a better player, period, independent of situation.

Given the hype that Karim Benzema’s received over the last three years, that is a tough thing for a lot of people to swallow. Benzema was the dream signing for supporters from Old Trafford to the Nou Camp, and his going to a place like the Santiago Bernabéu was only a matter of time. But people forget that much of the hype surrounding Benzema was because of his age. At 19, he was arguably the best player in the French league. Even now, he is still only 21 years old.

His age 20 year, however, was a disappointment. Benzema didn’t take a step back, per se; rather, he just seemed “over” Ligue 1. This despite spending the previous summer saying that he intended to see out his Lyon contract (which, at the time, had two years left). Half-way through last season, something happened. Maybe it was clear to him Lyon was not going to meet its expectations in Champions League. Maybe he knew that last season would be the year Lyon’s streak of league titles ended. I don’t know what it was exactly, but something happened. He was not as good at 20 as he was at 19.

That didn’t stop Real Madrid, for whom Benzema was a perfect fit. He is the classic number nine Real lacked – somebody that could push the line and allow Raul to play a more versatile role. He was what Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should have been, only because Benzema was five years younger, he solved not only immediate but long term problems. And even during a down season last year, Benzema scored 23 all competition goals while being the sole focus of Lyon’s attack. Disillusion, unmotivated, Benzema was still in the conversation amongst the world’s elite forwards.

But the lack of production that characterized his last days in France seemed to follow him to the Bernabeu. He failed to score in his first two games, and worse: He looked lost. He would go long periods of time without touching the ball, and by the time he got his third league start he was drifting deep into attack to get his touches. For a player brought in to push the line and keep the defense honest, this was not a welcome turn of events.

Later in that match (against Xerez), Benzema would score his first Real Madrid goal, putting Los Blancos up 4-0 in match that would end 5-0. When he scored and you saw his shoulders relax as if he’d been carrying a weight, you remembered this kid is only 21 years old. Of course, he felt pressure. If not pressure, certainly uncertainty: doubt.

His initial reaction when celebrating the first score of his Madrid career wasn’t joy or elation. It was “finally.”

A split second later, Benzema celebrated with gun motions to the crowd, he being the sniper on that fourth goal. His heart wasn’t in it, though. The celebration last a few seconds before he returned to his teammates. He smiled. A small, polite smile, just to make sure everybody knew he was in fact happy.

Benzema is not the first striker to struggle in a new environment, so the poignance of the moment was lost on me. I’d seen that story before, I thought. Striker not settling in. It will pass, I reasoned.

Today, I found out I was wrong. This was not the typical striker struggling to fit into a new team. This was more. After watching Benzema and Real Madrid today, I wonder how close we were to “losing” him. How close were we to starting a process which would leave us, years from now, saying “yeah, but remember all teh hype around Benzema?”

Today Real Madrid hosted Tenerife, another recently promoted side. After a surprisingly scoreless first half, the young Frenchman would open Madrid’s account with a well-taken header two minutes into the half. Ten minutes later, Benzema would get his second goal, being put in behind the defense for an easy finish when the Tenerife goaltender put himself in no man’s land.

Despite the brace, it wasn’t until after this second goal that I saw the first indication that Benzema had fully regained his confidence. With Kaka holding the ball at about 28 meters from goal, Benzema made a quick, darting run to get behind the line. Kaka read the play brilliantly and put the ball at the Frenchman’s feet, and although Benzema did not get his hattrick, it was the type of decisive action that Benzema’d lacked through his first four matches. It was the first indication that Benzema was confident in what he was doing – in what he would do, once he got the ball.

Benzema’s confidence would help set-up Madrid’s third and final goal. Played the ball just outside the box, Benzema held while his team mates ran into attack. Then, quickly, he took two touches, played the ball back for an oncoming Kaka, and ran wide right to create space for the attacking midfielder. Kaka would bury the shot, given time to do so thanks to Benzema drawing defenders away from the ball after the same defenders had previously collapsed upon him.

Around the sixtieth minute of league match number five. That’s when it clicked for Benzema. That’s will be the turning point of his season. And who knows. I may have just seen the turning point in Benzema’s Real Madrid career.

Without today’s match, who knows how long Benzema could have gone eating himself up, because that’s what the reaction to his goal against Xerez indicated. This was a player that was starting to not only doubt – he was starting to use those doubts to sabotage himself. But Benzema is an elite talent, and thankfully, that talent shined today, hopefully putting all this speculation behind him.

I can’t help but think of all the players who went through similar situations yet never adjusted. We mentioned Huntelaar, Benzema’s predecessor, who at 26 years old may not have the time to shake the reputation garnered from his first stint outside Holland.

And then there’s A player like Diego Forlan, 22 when he went to Manchester United, will always have his career viewed through the light of what he didn’t do at United, no matter how many Pichichi he wins.

Here’s hoping today means we will see Benzema reach his potential.