How Karim Benzema is benefiting from Ronaldo's Real Madrid exit
Karim Benzema is a man on fire. 'He’s a different Benzema,' Monday's AS cover boldly read, accompanied with a stylish image of the Frenchman following another assured performance for Real Madrid. Yet Julen Lopetegui claims nothing has changed. The only difference, then, could just be Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus.
Benzema’s career hit an all-time low last season. Although he has always cut a divisive figure among faithful, it hit rock bottom. His work rate, attitude and commitment were severely questioned. While trying to prove critics wrong, the striker's body language, more often than not, didn't align.
A shadow of his previous self, the frightful, bullish poacher had disappeared. Benzema's tactical awareness, positional sense and offensive movement all vanished. He became clueless, rigid, even glum. These were the hallmark of a player low on confidence.
Without such traits, he couldn't threaten. Opponents rarely bothered about him. In all competitions, Benzema managed a dozen goals. He tarried until February's end to register four in La Liga, eventually finishing the campaign adding just one more. Ronaldo, meanwhile, crawled into the season, but his numbers finished in five folds.
Benzema’s pitiful form wasn’t entirely his own making. Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo burnt some bridges. The then Los Blancos boss offered the Portugues leverage to drift centrally into spaces meant for French teammate. As the star man, the entire squad was forbidden to eclipse the five-time Ballon d'Or winner. It was a customary yet sensible pact that yielded three successive Champions Leagues.
With Ronaldo now gone, Benzema is enjoying football again. Confidence and enthusiasm are sky high knowing no one can bully him anymore. There’s a new level of hunger not witnessed since a decade ago when Florentino Perez returned from his visit to Bron Terraillon with the Lyon-born frontman.
As in previous four matches, Benzema looked liberated against Leganes on Saturday night. He doubled the lead with a header after Gareth Bale had opened the scoring, before unleashing a spectacular shot from the edge of the area to add his second.
Lopetegui’s associative brand is clearly a major factor. The former Spain coach has made Madrid much more creative in a structured, possession-based philosophy. It suits Benzema's game perfectly.
Four goals in three games is proof. Freed from the shackles of having to provide for Ronaldo - operating as a domestique, Benzema was doing exactly what was asked last season – he is now finding the net more. The 30-year-old has never had it this good in Spain.
Benzema may never have thought of challenging for the Pichichi. Not with Ronaldo’s co-Ballon d'Or tyrant Lionel Messi still at peak. But it is the Real striker who currently leads the pack, tied with the Argentine. Lopetegui believes this could be his time.
Why not? Why shouldn't he finish with 30 or 40 goals? The most important thing is the team and goals are the work of the whole team. Benzema is a great player and always has been. What he's doing is a credit to him. He's happy and is helping the team, and it'll stay like this.
Bale, too, seems to have found new life. The Welshman is playing with liberty and purpose. In the past four seasons, he and Benzema have garnered two, four, two and one La Liga goals combined at this stage. Now, after just three games, all ending in victories, they have tallied seven between them. Those have come from only 16 attempts. Ronaldo, meanwhile, is yet to get off the mark from 23 shots in Italy.
Questions were raised when Ronaldo departed Real Madrid in the summer. If Benzema and cohorts maintain current form, then that decision may prove a masterstroke.