Cast your minds back to that heady summer of 2009, which marked the return of Florentino Perez and heralded the collection of a new generation of Galacticos, conveniently labelled the “neo-Galacticos” by the ever-creative football press. Any other year, the signing of Xabi Alonso for 35 million euros would have been the major talking point, but the summer of 2009 was anything but an ordinary transfer window for Real Madrid, what with the successive transfer fee record-breaking signings of Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo. The 2007 and 2008 FIFA World Players of the Year had been persistently targeted by the club since the tenure of Ramon Calderon, who even brashly claimed much of the credit for laying the groundwork for the two mega-transfers. However, the one megastar that Calderon – as well as Perez after him – wanted but didn’t get was David Villa. A prolific and frighteningly consistent goalscorer for Los Che, Villa came within inches of signing for Real Madrid during that summer; indeed but for a roughly 10 million euro difference in his valuation by the two clubs, Villa would have been donning the white of Real Madrid and we would have had no reason to talk about the player Perez signed instead – Karim Benzema.
While the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka were heralded by Madridistas worldwide, it was in many ways the transfer of the French phenom Benzema that truly captured our imagination. After all, we had a pretty good idea of what Kaká and CR7 would bring to Real Madrid. Kaká – he of the dynamic, slaloming runs and the unique combination of physique and Samba flair; and Cristiano Ronaldo, the outrageously gifted dribbler, taker of astounding free-kicks and goalscorer extraordinaire. But Benzema, despite establishing himself as one of European football’s brightest prospects, still brought with him a hint of the unknown, evoking the kind of excitement that only a young signing can. I personally hadn’t been that enthused over a transfer since the signing of Sergio “drop it like it’s hot” Ramos in 2005.
Back in the 2007-08 season, a 19-year old Benzema registered a whopping 31 goals and 8 assists in 52 games for a Lyon side that was expected to struggle following the departure of attacking stalwarts Florent Malouda, John Carew and Sylvain Wiltord. The following season was not as productive for Benzema as he scored 23 times in 48 games, but he had done enough to make the football world sit up and take notice of his talents. All of France heralded Benzema as the next big phenomenon in world football. We were told that he was the next Ronaldo (R9). When it was announced that he would be joining Real Madrid, many observers and pundits were certain that he would walk straight into Madrid’s line-up, displacing Gonzalo Higuain and assuming the centre-forward role in the fantasy football team gifted to Manuel Pellegrini.
However, Benzema took a while to come to grips with the transition from Ligue 1 to the more demanding environs of La Liga, while the language barrier clearly affected his ability to communicate with his teammates on the pitch. While he showed glimpses of smoothness and undoubted class on the ball, he was often caught in two minds in and around the penalty box area, an area of the pitch that he had made his own while at Lyon. Injury problems only made things more difficult for the Frenchman, who only managed 8 goals in all competitions. However, despite the disappointing return, most Madridistas were willing to give Benzema another season to prove himself. After all, it couldn’t have been easy for a 21-year old leaving his family and hometown club for the first time in his life to arrive in a strange new country where he didn’t have friends and didn’t speak the language. The stresses and strains of Benzema’s life situation were bound to be reflected in his play. But there could be no excuses next season.
The 2010-11 season began inauspiciously for Benzema, as Mourinho made it clear that Higuain was his first-choice striker. When given playing time to prove himself, Benzema never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. His performances continued to underwhelm, much to the frustration of the fans, coach and president. Even his teammates were unimpressed, with Kaká coming out to say that Benzema needed to apply himself more. He could no longer use “adjustment” as an excuse, especially when someone like Mesut Özil, who was new to the league and didn’t speak Spanish, was having such an outstanding debut season. Benzema’s low work-rate, poor tactical awareness and reluctance to get involved in build-up play were all pinpointed as major causes for concern.
In late November, Higuain suffered a serious back injury, forcing Mourinho to thrust the out-of-sorts Benzema into the first team out of necessity rather than trust. Quizzed about how Madrid would cope without the services of the reliable Higuain, Mourinho pulled out this now-epic reply: “you hunt better with a dog than with a cat, but if you don’t have a dog, you’re better off hunting with a cat than not hunting at all”. While Mourinho would later try to put a different spin on his comment, it was clear that he did not have much confidence in Benzema. The under-fire Frenchman did manage two hat-tricks in December, but these came in a meaningless Champions League game against Auxerre and an 8-1 Copa del Rey thrashing of lowly Levante, and did little to convince Mourinho. Indeed, in a crucial Liga clash against Almeria, Benzema was left on the bench as Madrid lined up without a true striker, with Cristiano Ronaldo assuming that role. It was the ultimate insult, and the nadir of Benzema’s season.
By leaving Benzema on the bench, Mourinho killed two birds with one stone – he made it clear to Benzema that he would have to drastically improve if he wanted to play for Real Madrid again, and also made a point to Florentino Perez and Jorge Valdano that a new striker was urgently required. Perez and Valdano finally relented, and Emmanuel Adebayor was brought in from Man City. Adebayor started fairly well, and things were looking bleak for Benzema, who by now had been re-christened Benzená (ná being short for nada, or “nothing”) by Marca.
Then suddenly, it happened – Benzema began scoring goals. Not just any goals, but crucial ones. First, a spectacular solo effort in the away leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals against Sevilla, which all but booked Real’s place in the final. Then, a few weeks later, another crucial away goal – this time in the Champions League Round of 16 tie against his former team Lyon. Real hadn’t scored in the Stade Gerland in their three previous visits, being defeated all three times, but less than a minute after coming on as a sub for Adebayor, Benzema put Real 1-0 up against the team that nurtured him into a star. He chose not to celebrate out of respect for his hometown club and fans, but Florentino Perez, in a rare expression of emotion in the presidential box, jumped off his seat in an unrestrained show of delight and relief as Lyon supremo Jean Michel Aulas could only look on glumly.
After leaving his mark on Madrid’s Copa del Rey and Champions League campaigns, Benzema set his sights on La Liga, where he scored three consecutive braces followed by the opening goal in the 2-1 win away at Atletico Madrid. But he wasn’t just scoring goals – his off-the-ball play was improving by leaps and bounds, and he quite simply looked more alert and confident out on the pitch. It was indeed quite heartening to see that he had the mental strength to bounce back after the brickbats hurled at him from all quarters. Instead of whining or making excuses, he had responded to Mourinho’s stinging criticism in the best possible way – by improving his performances. While his purple patch would be cut short by an injury that left him unavailable for a few weeks, he ultimately capped off his season in style, scoring a brace in the last game of the season. This left him with a very respectable season tally of 26 goals in 48 appearances (17 of them off the bench). Despite his early season struggles, Benzema managed to prove that a) he has what it takes to score crucial goals in high-stakes games, and b) he has what it takes to score clumps of goals at a time.
Now, in the build-up to the 2011-12 season, it appears that Benzema has picked up where he left off at the end of last season. Madridista Mac in his recent article at the RMFB observed that Benzema is finally combining his undoubted technical ability with awareness, alertness and involvement, thereby “becoming the player we were all expecting to see when he joined us”. He also seems to be becoming the player that Mourinho expects him to be. The Special One was effusive in his recent praise for Benzema, stating that he “now thinks about football the same way that I do” and “has everything required to have a great campaign”.
It was a far cry from the public berating Benzema suffered at the hands of his coach last season. In hindsight, Mourinho’s “cat-dog” comment and other public criticisms of Benzema were his way of lighting a fire up Benzema’s rear end. He knew what Benzema was capable of and had faith in his abilities, so he criticized him as a way of challenging him to do better. “Why then”, you ask, “did he not employ the same approach with Pedro Leon”? Well he did to begin with, but quickly lost all faith in him and so just chose to ignore his existence for the remainder of the season. To Mourinho, Pedro Leon wasn’t worth motivating. But Benzema was. And boy did it ever work. Benzema now looks happy and confident on the pitch, and seems to be genuinely enjoying his football. “I have worked really hard this summer and feel all the better for it”, said a beaming Benzema following the recent game against Hertha Berlin.
I don’t think anyone ever doubted Benzema’s talent. I think we can all agree that he always had more raw talent and technical ability than Pipita Higuain and is a more natural finisher. The reason Pipita has been so much more successful is because of his professionalism, maturity, intelligence and mental fortitude. Benzema’s first season and a half at Real Madrid suffered due to the language barrier, the stress of moving to a new team in an unfamiliar league and country, and his numerous tactical and personality deficits. But now that he has made tangible progress in ironing out his flaws, he can be genuinely hopeful to have the kind of impact on Real Madrid that Pipita has had in the past. For the first time since joining Real Madrid, Benzema will be able to play with confidence in his own abilities as well the confidence of his coach. This will allow him to play without performance anxiety and with tranquillity, which sets him up for an absolutely stellar season this time around.
An additional boost for Benzema that deserves mention is the Zidane factor. While Zidane was occasionally around the team last season, he is set to play a much more hands-on role this time around. While he may have been handed the ambiguous title of “Director of Football” (ambiguous because Mourinho is apparently “Head of Football Operations”), the truth is that he is there to motivate and help the players (and of course, to learn the coaching trade from one of its best exponents). For Benzema, having an all-time great like Zidane around him will be a massive help when you consider the fact that they both speak the same language and even share the same ethnicity, being Frenchmen of Algerian descent. The motivation and inspiration factor of having Zidane around cannot be discounted.
In conclusion, I don’t see anything stopping Benzema from having a memorable season this time around. He has finally supplemented his raw talent with the intelligence and maturity needed to become a world-class player. It is these crucial but often understated variables that separate the Messis from the Robinhos, the Cristiano Ronaldos from the Quaresmas, and the Benzema of 2009 from the Benzema of 2011. Zidane’s presence will work as an X-factor, while Higuain’s poor pre-season form means that Benzema will probably start the season as first-choice striker and will have a golden opportunity to cement a place in the team. Just as Higuain (and ultimately, Real Madrid) once benefited from a long-term injury to Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Benzema is now set to benefit from Higuain’s poor pre-season form as well as his own hard work since last season. While I am confident that Higuain’s form will pick up as the season progresses, my gut tells me that this will be Benzema’s season.
Speaking of Van Nistelrooy, the great Dutchman once famously told Gonzalo Higuain that “goals are like ketchup – sometimes, as much as you try and shake the bottle, hardly anything comes out and then suddenly it all comes out at once”. After two seasons of shaking the proverbial bottle, it looks like Benzema is all set to make a “splash” next season.