Why Zinedine Zidane won't drop Karim Benzema
Background image: I, Elemaki, CC BY-SA 2.5.
Karim Benzema has not scored a goal for Real Madrid in his last 12 appearances in all competitions. That's a damning statistic for a striker expected to be the focal point of attack in one of the best club's in the world. Although his 13 league goals this season is a fair amount, the most successful side in Europe can do with a better striker. It's not surprising then that the Spanish giants are now linked with a move for Norwegian teenage sensation Erling Haaland.
Ultimately, the Borussia Dortmund hotshot may make a big-money move to the Santiago Bernabeu, but for now, Zinedine Zidane relies heavily on his fellow countryman. That's despite severe criticism from different quarters of the striker's output in front of goal. Cristiano Ronaldo used to reign supreme in the Spanish capital, his goals helping Real Madrid to three consecutive Champions League triumphs. But his departure has forced Benzema to step up. The Frenchman did last term, supplying 21 goals and six assists in an otherwise poor campaign for Los Blancos. Not a small improvement from a man who managed just five league goals in the whole of the 2017/18 campaign.
But the former Lyon man has not been as prolific this season. Yet, Les Merengues are having a better campaign. That's in La Liga at least. In Europe, the team started poorly but picked up the pace and did enough to finish behind Paris Saint-Germain in the group stage. Losing 2-1 at home to Manchester City in the first leg of the round of 16 was a surprising result. But writing off the 13-time champions from qualification for the quarter-final based on the first-leg outcome could be a mistake.
Benzema failed to find the back of the net in the game as in the next one, El Clasico, but he is very much an important part of the team. In fact, the manager rates him so highly he is rarely put on the bench. The 32-year-old is valued for several things that go beyond just putting the ball in the back of the net.
In the last 12 games he failed to score, Real won eight. They went through a rough patch more recently, but that hasn't been damaging, particularly in La Liga. Topping the table despite not being at their best shows just how Zidane's management is bearing fruits. They may need to do better on the continent though, especially with Sergio Ramos suspended for the return leg against Pep Guardiola's City. Benzema could prove crucial in the grand scheme of things.
The former France international is excellent at holding up play and bringing his teammates into the attack. Unfortunately, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard and the rest aren't posting numbers. The Welshman has let relationship issues with the club and transfer speculation affect his on-field performance negatively. Hazard, on the other hand, has been hindered by niggling injuries. Luka Jovic and Mariano Diaz have simply failed to put up convincing displays despite the latter coming on to score a rare goal that sealed the win against Barcelona.
At 32, Benzema cannot be expected to score as often as Ronaldo just as Mariano and Jovic can't. Zidane doesn't play him just for his goals, either. To the Madrid gaffer, he's more like a Roberto Firmino, maybe even a better version. He acts as the glue in the attack, providing a connecting link between the midfielders and forwards.
That role has been crucial to Zidane's success at the Santiago Bernabeu and the French manager is not about to change things anytime soon. But whether his trust in the striker's unique ability proves as rewarding this term as it has been in previous years remains to be seen...