Karim Benzema at his best

It has been a long, difficult and often controversial road to get where he is today for Karim Benzema, but he is now set for the legacy his talent deserves. The 34-year-old is part of France’s ‘lost generation’ alongside the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri; talent wasn’t an issue, just like most France teams, but work-rate and togetherness meant, for years, Les Bleus underachieved.

Nowadays, it isn’t rare to see players achieving great things well into their 30s, especially for strikers. Benzema is just one of many in that regard, with Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani among the list of number 9s still at the top of their game as they headed into their twilight years. But Benzema’s story has taken a different path; there is an argument to say that while the others maintained their levels, he has only just reached his peak. Wednesday’s Champions League hat-trick – the first ever against Chelsea and his second in as many games – showcased a maturity that he had previously struggled to achieve. Now is the time for Benzema’s best; he is a leader, propping up Real Madrid at a difficult time and writing himself into folklore.

That was what he promised to do as a young player in Lyon, circa 2008. When he broke through, he made waves around Europe; Manchester United were interested, but unsurprisingly, Madrid won the race the following summer. Florentino Perez had returned to the club for a second stint as president and the father of the Galactico era was desperate to make an impact. Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo stole all the headlines, but Benzema’s arrival showed a view for the future. He wasn’t a star in his own right, and through very little fault of his own, as he aided Ronaldo’s rise to becoming the club’s chief goal threat for the best part of a decade, he became known as somebody who couldn’t shoulder responsibility and was instead better in a supporting role.

Through the reigns of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti (first time around), this narrative persisted. He was often preferred by the former, but faced competition from Gonzalo Higuaín and it would be untruthful to say he was unquestionably first choice. While all this was going on, he was posting healthy goal tallies, peaking at 24 in La Liga under Rafael Benitez and latterly under Zinedine Zidane during 2015/16, but the narrative persisted; in Ronaldo’s last season, he scored just 5 in 32 league games and there was talk of an exit. Arsenal were rumoured to be confident of his signing, but his stock had never been lower.

International recognition would perhaps have helped, but he only has himself to blame for the lack of that. He was suspended from France duty in 2015 after his involvement in a scandal revolving around the blackmail of a teammate, for which he was found guilty last year, months after returning at the delayed Euro 2020. He missed the emergence of another great team and the 2018 World Cup win; it has been a blot on his career and perhaps permanently damaged his perception and reputation on the world stage.

On the pitch, the narrative changed when Ronaldo left in 2018. There was no star signing incoming immediately and Madrid needed somebody to pick up the baton; from that moment, Benzema has hit 20 league goals every season and maintained their success on a domestic level, even if the European victories – four Champions League titles in five years – ended when the club’s all time top goalscorer left.

Benzema’s form has allowed others to flourish around him, namely Vinicius Jr, and he has kept things running smoothly while big hitters like Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale have flopped. There is still an unselfish quality to his game, but if his performance on Wednesday proves anything, it is that he is a decisive match-winner at the elite level in his own right and is finally being recognised for that fact.

There have been difficult moments for him, both personally and professionally, but the world is finally seeing and understanding his quality; he is even in the conversation as one of the best modern-day strikers, not simply as the best on form, and that has shown quite a shift in the way he is viewed, at least for his footballing ability.

At his age, it won’t go on forever, but he has deserved a few years enjoying the limelight. Next season, he could be the support again, as France teammate Kylian Mbappe, the man who would signal the third wave of Galactico at the Santiago a Bernabeu, could be on his way. But who knows? Maybe he will lead the club to a 14th European title this season. If he does, it would cap one of the finest evolutions seen in many a year.

Author: Tamara Kim