Karim Benzema carries Real Madrid over Chelsea

LONDON — Luka Modric has, at this point, seen just about everything there is to see. He won four Champions League titles. He played in...


LONDON — Luka Modric has, at this point, seen just about everything there is to see. He won four Champions League titles. He played in a World Cup final. He spent a decade at Real Madrid, integrated among some of the best players of his generation. He is one of the best players of his generation. He is probably neither easily impressed nor easily surprised.

Just over 20 minutes into the first leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea on Wednesday, Modric saw something that did both. He stood at the edge of the Chelsea penalty area, admiring the volley of crosses he had just thrown. He would have been delighted with it: a skilful, cut number, swirling away from Edouard Mendy’s goal, and towards his teammate Karim Benzema.

An eye as keen as Modric’s, however, would have recognized that the ball’s trajectory and player’s position weren’t quite in sync. Benzema was a little too forward, or the center was a little too far back. He was only out about an inch, but few players treasure precision more than Modric; these things matter.

Yet all was not lost. Benzema had options. The most obvious was trying to direct the ball to Mendy’s right. Or, perhaps, he could try to replicate the header that had opened the scoring a few minutes earlier, a header of such force that it had overtaken Mendy before he had a chance to recognize it. . In a pinch, Benzema might even have time to drop the ball and play from there.

What Modric couldn’t have foreseen was what followed. Benzema, leaning back slightly, nodded the ball gently, almost gently, towards Mendy’s goal. He hung in the air for what felt like an eternity, drifting towards the far post. There was a moment of silence as Mendy, Modric and everyone else inside Stamford Bridge waited to see where he would land.

He finally nestled inside the post. As Benzema turned away, his smile wide and his palms open, to run towards the Real Madrid fans, Modric still seemed frozen. He waited a beat, maybe two, before jumping, just a little, into the air, arms raised, a smile of disbelief on his face. Every now and then it turns out that Karim Benzema can even surprise Luka Modric.

In this, at least, he is not alone. Benzema’s career arc is, in truth, a little misunderstood. It’s not entirely fair to portray him as a belated bloomer, a faltering talent who waited until the final years of his career to fulfill his long-held promise, to learn how to make the most of his gifts.

Benzema has always been patently, lavishly, absurdly talented; he was, after all, only 19 when Jean-Pierre Papin – not an average striker himself, in his day – said Benzema had the dynamism of (the Brazilian) Ronaldo, the imagination of Ronaldinho, the elegance of Thierry Henry and the cruelty of David Trézéguet.

At the age of 21, Benzema was close to signing for Barcelona and completed his move to Real Madrid. He would spend the first decade of his career in Spain scoring – on average – one goal every two games, the traditional watermark of elite strikers, and creating many more. Zinedine Zidane, his coach for much of that time, variously described him as ‘the best’ and a ‘total footballer’.

That he was not the star of the show, of course, is not very well explained: he was playing only a few meters from one of the greatest strikers of all timea striker who made scoring a goal from two look quaint and old-fashioned and actually, when you think about it, something of a disappointment.

Benzema was perfectly happy about it. He willingly sacrificed his own strengths, his own ambitions, to help his teammate maximize his own. In doing so, he ensured that no player, arguably, more than himself suffered so much from the redefinition of the possible that marked the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

The golden autumn that Benzema has enjoyed, since Ronaldo’s departure in 2018, is therefore best seen as a form of optical illusion: it’s not that he shines brighter than before, but that the blazing torch which has so long drowned out all the others the bright spot is gone. Only now is it possible to see Benzema in high definition.

What has emerged is a strange impression of the player Papin described all those years ago. Benzema has become – has always been, most likely – a complete centre-forward, a complete attack made flesh, and yet even that underestimates him. It is he who makes this Real Madrid, aging and a bit patchwork, a complete team.

The proof is simple. A few weeks ago, in his absence, Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid were overwhelmed at home by a resurgent Barcelona. That night, as they suffered a 4-0 loss and the Bernabeu mocked and whistled their heroes, Real Madrid looked like they were meant to be: a team plagued by an awkward and difficult transition from from time to time, half including a team that had had their day and a half including a team waiting for their chance.

On either side of this disappointment, with Benzema in the squad, Real Madrid have mastered a Paris Saint-Germain certainly complicit and now – more impressively, given the French team’s penchant for self-immolation – have beaten reigning European champions Chelsea on their home turf. On both occasions, Benzema not only scored the three goals, he was Madrid’s brain and heart, its focal point and vanguard.

He is, almost single-handedly, a guarantee of Real Madrid’s continued European relevance. Ancelotti will now be confident of helping his side to a second consecutive semi-final in the Spanish capital next week – although he would no doubt disagree with his Chelsea counterpart Thomas Tuchel’s assessment that the draw was over – as long as Benzema is a gift. He is the one who makes everything work. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Maybe he was always the one who made it all work. It’s just that we’re only starting to notice it now.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Karim Benzema carries Real Madrid over Chelsea
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