In 2018, after their millionth Champions League win, Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid, for Italian shores. The big question was how were Real Madrid going to replace their all-time top scorer. Who were they going to buy? The answer was nobody. Florentino Perez like always, knew something the rest of the world didn’t. He knew Los Blancos didn’t need to replace Ronaldo.
The forgotten man, who quite literally waited in the wings for Ronaldo, was ready to step up. I highly doubt whether Perez knew we would witness one of the best four-year stretches by a 31-year-old striker we have ever seen. Yet he still put his faith in him, and the Frenchman repaid it tenfold. I am of course talking about Karim Mostafa Benzema.
If you were to say pre-2018 that Benzema was arguably the greatest striker of his generation, you would be laughed at. He had finished that season with just 5 league goals. Even though he scored in a Champions League final and had won 4 of the last 5 Champions Leagues, the Frenchman would hardly be mentioned as a key factor in these wins.
The likes of Luis Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski, and Sergio Aguero were all mentioned as better strikers than the Frenchman, even with all his accolades. His finishing was especially mocked and playing second fiddle to Ronaldo didn’t help as the Portuguese garnered all the accolades. But as soon as he left, that goalscoring void was filled by Benzema. So much so that the Frenchman became Madrid’s second-highest goal scorer. Pretty impressive for someone who couldn’t finish.
What made Benzema so special was that it wasn’t just the goals, it was how he played. It was the refusal to be confined to the prison we call the penalty box. He dared to adventure outside of it and his managers knew not to shackle him. He ventured out to the wings, bamboozling defenders who didn’t even give him an inch. Like that dribble against Atletico in the CL Semi-Final. Where he escaped managed to escape three defenders and the by-line who stupidly thought the rules of space applied to Benzema.
It was the 1 v 1 back when he was playing at Lyon a lifetime ago, where in R9-esque fashion, he did 2,3 body feints and without touching the ball, left the goalkeeper looking backward whilst he simply tapped it in. It was these moments of Magique that left football fans gasping and scratching their heads as to how the Lyon youth even thought of these actions, never mind performing them.
His wandering nature meant that he often drifted over to the left wing, where he would combine to devastating effect with Vinicius Jr. From swearing to God that Vinicius was playing against Madrid to looking for him at every opportunity, the pair’s relationship blossomed very quickly. For the last two seasons, they have been Europe’s deadliest duo. Benzema’s ability to adapt to others around him in his mid-30s is a testament to his intelligence and adaptability.
From the one-touch play in and around the box to Benzema dropping deep and playing Vinicius through, to the opposite happening, theirs is a relationship that had both style and substance. Playing through these two became Madrid’s tactics and it became a case of everyone knowing what was going to happen but being unable to stop it. This combination had Right-Backs all over Europe dazed, and in the 2021-2022 season, it culminated in one of Madrid’s most astonishing seasons.
At the tender age of 34, Benzema had his best season. Not only did his goals help Madrid win La Liga, but they also helped them accomplish maybe the most astonishing Champions League in recent history. In the round of 16, being 2-0 down in the second leg against PSG, the Frenchman scored a hat-trick in 18 minutes to dump his ex-rivals out of the competition. In the quarter-finals, he scored another hat-trick against Chelsea, and in the second leg, scored the winning header in extra time.
Against Manchester City, he scored 2 goals in the first leg including a Panenka from the penalty spot, and in the second leg, he again scored the winner in extra time. We all know how the final went, but Benzema was inarguably the MVP of Madrid’s campaign with 15 goals in 12 Champions League appearances. 50 goals in 54 appearances. A La Liga and Champions League double and a Ballon d’Or. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez nor Robert Lewandowski had the title of being officially the best player in the world titled to them, (Lewandowski should count himself as extremely unlucky).
This is what puts him above his peers. For them, they could only play second fiddle to the two-headed beast of Ronaldo and Messi. Whereas Benzema saw Ronaldo leaving as the opportunity to make his stamp on world football. To stand up and be counted as amongst the best strikers of not only this generation but all time. From scoring 31 goals in 2008 to scoring 31 in 2023, his longevity alongside his honours set him at the top of the mountain.
Even with all his issues with the national team, he still managed to show glimpses of his astonishing ability. In their RO16 match against Switzerland, the Frenchman collected a pass from behind him, by sticking out his left boot to control it to go AHEAD of him and then two steps later dinked it over Yan Sommer with his left foot. However, in the same game, France would then crash out shockingly on penalties. This game was the story of Benzema’s career with the national team. He showed what made him so special, yet his efforts didn’t matter. And ultimately, in this era of French national success, France’s Ballon d’Or winner won’t be remembered. A stain on his legacy in more ways than one.
Madrid’s second-highest goal scorer. Madrid’s top-ever assister. The 4th highest goal scorer in Champions League history. 5 Champions League titles, multiple Player of the Year awards, a Ballon d’Or, and the adulation of millions worldwide. The Lyon youth player who was once compared to Zidane and Ronaldo forged his own path on the pitch.
He’s been the fall guy; he’s been the one who sacrificed for others and now he’s been the main man to lead a team to glory. So, it’s unsurprising when Saudi Arabia comes calling offering a king’s ransom, that at the age of 35, he calls the curtain of a glittering European career. For all the memories and joy, he’s given on the pitch all I can say is merci et au revoir Benz.
By: Abu Yasin / @abuy2j
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Angel Martinez – Getty Images