Karim Benzema knows what the whistling of the Santiago Bernabeu sounds like. Just as is the case with so many Real Madrid players, the Frenchman’s relationship with his own fans has been a difficult one over the years. At times, he has been hailed as something of a cult hero. At others, Benzema has been targeted. A scapegoat.
Last season saw the 31-year-old swing towards the latter rather than the former. Benzema ended the campaign with yet another Champions League winners medal, but many expected him to be replaced in the summer. Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane were mentioned as potential successors.
Few counted on the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo, though, and with that the dynamic around Benzema’s future in the Spanish capital changed. He was expected to step into the void left by the five-time Ballon d’Or winner and yet that looked to be beyond him over the early part of the 2018/19 season. The jeers and whistles could still be heard.
Something has changed in recent weeks, though. Benzema has found form, possibly his best form as a Real Madrid player. The Frenchman has six goals in his last five games, and in the one game he didn’t find the net he contributed a terrific assist away to Barcelona in the semi finals of the Copa del Rey.
Benzema is leading the Real Madrid line in a way few thought he could at this age. His pace has seemingly returned, gliding past opposition players at will, and his creative juices are flowing. The Frenchman isn’t just providing Real Madrid with a goal-getting finisher in the final third, he’s opening things up for others too.
The emergence of Vinicius Junior in 2019 has played a role in this renaissance for Benzema. The teenage Brazilian has given Real Madrid the sort of forward thrust they’d lacked post-Ronaldo, stretching opposition defences and prising open gaps for teammates to exploit. Benzema has been one of those beneficiaries.
A real understanding has been forged between Benzema and Vinicius in recent weeks. It was evident in the goal scored at Camp Nou on Wednesday night, when Vinicius dug out a deep cross to the back post, where Benzema was able to bring it down and square the ball for Lucas Vazquez to convert from close range.
Much of Real Madrid’s play is now coming down the left side. Vinicius is the one who the ball flows through, but ultimately it invariably ends up with Benzema. He is the focal point and is rewarding Santiago Solari for the faith shown in the Frenchman. Others may well have dropped Benzema such was the extent of his early season struggles.
“He's hugely important for us, we've always defended him because we know what a great player he is,” Keylor Navas explained after Real Madrid’s win over Girona in the Copa del Rey quarter final. “We know what he brings to the team, he's a reference and we're very happy that he's playing how he is.”
Indeed, Benzema is a hugely important figure for Real Madrid. That has been true for a long time, acting as a foil to Ronaldo for a number of years. Now, however, different demands are being made of him. He is being asked to be a different sort of player, a different sort of focal point. And he is delivering.
On current form, there is no need for Kane or Lewandowski to be lured to the Santiago Bernabeu. It’s true that Real Madrid need something of an overhaul this summer, but they should focus on other areas of the pitch. Far from being a scapegoat for their problems, Benzema has become a figurehead for their resurgence.
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