Karim Benzema has always had a funny relationship with Real Madrid supporters.
In his first season after making a €35m move from Lyon, Benzema managed just eight goals in 27 games. He spent a large part of the campaign on the bench and faced plenty of criticism from the media for a perceived lack of effort to adapt to life in Spain.
He did eventually find his footing, netting 15 and 21 goals in the next two seasons respectively, but when he only managed a tally of 11 in 2012/13, doubts began to surface about the Frenchman’s ability to lead the line for a team as big as Real.
After all, he was supposed to be the actual goalscorer in a team who had just seen Cristiano Ronaldo fire home 34 goals in the same campaign.
During the Ronaldo era, Benzema‘s numbers fluctuated massively. He scored 24 goals in 2015/16 and managed just five in 2017/18. Most fans had decided that he was not good enough for the team, and Ronaldo’s decision to leave in the summer of 2018 had supporters terrified for a future with Benzema as the main man in attack.
Real were about to go from relying on Ronaldo to relying on Benzema, and it wasn’t hard to find a fan who felt as though the team were completely and utterly doomed because of the Frenchman’s perceived incompetence.
However, all Ronaldo’s exit actually did was emphasise just how disrespected Benzema had been for all those years.
Unsurprisingly, Real really felt Ronaldo’s exit. They were humiliated in the Champions League last 16 at the hands of Ajax and finished no less than 19 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, but the only reason things weren’t so much worse was Benzema’s emergence from the shadows.
Having spent so much time being Robin, Benzema took the chance to be Batman. Instead of looking for that extra pass to make his teammates look good, the Frenchman switched his focus back to scoring goals.
“For me he is the best, it is very clear.”
– Zinedine Zidane
His return of 21 league goals in 2018/19 was 13 more than second-top scorer Gareth Bale, who managed just eight goals while playing significantly fewer minutes than most. Nobody else in white turned up, but Benzema put the club on his back and dragged them away from complete and utter embarrassment.
For Benzema, things haven’t even been particularly different. He’s still using his outstanding work rate to create goals for Real, but it just so happens that he’s now scoring those goals instead of assisting them.
“Now I’m the one leading the attack,” he told France Football (via GFFN). “I used to play for Cristiano and I was trying to find him so that he could score even more goals. I was under the radar, now it’s up to me to prove that I want to score goals.”
That transition has brought about the recognition which Benzema has always deserved, and it has forced his fiercest critics to go back and eat their words. Just because he wasn’t bursting out on the stats sheet doesn’t mean he wasn’t good.
Benzema’s time at the Santiago Bernabeu has been a journey of versatility. He was a bench warmer, then a star goalscorer, then a decorated false nine, and now he’s back to being the focal point of the attack again.
He has embodied each role perfectly, keeping his ears closed and mind fully focused on the task at hand. Benzema is a Real Madrid player and he believes his only responsibility is helping Real Madrid win trophies.
Obviously, he’s done exactly that. Three La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues are the stand-out accolades on his outstanding CV, and the fact that he sits fourth in the club’s all-time scoring charts is only an added bonus to Benzema.
His talent may have often flown under the radar, but manager Zinedine Zidane knows the true extent of Benzema’s brilliance.
“For me yes [he’s the best French striker ever], in addition to what he does, what he shows, he has been at Real Madrid for a long time,” said Zidane (via Goal). “More than 500 games, all the goals, his record. What he has done speaks for itself. For me he is the best, it is very clear.
“He is a more complete player now than he used to be. He is not a pure No.9, he doesn’t just think about scoring goals and that’s what I love about him.
“He loves to combine with his team-mates and create chances for them but he also knows how to score goals and he does that when the team needs him the most. That’s what Karim is all about.”
Benzema is now getting the appreciation he has always deserved, but perhaps it’s a good thing he has been continuously disrespected.
The Frenchman has thrived on proving people wrong, and he’s had to do a lot of that. Real fans haven’t always appreciated him and he’s been out in the cold with the French national team since 2015, but that has simply spurred him on.
With a chip on his shoulder, Benzema has ascended to the top of the striker mountain. Nobody does what he does quite like him.