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Karim Benzema was brilliant in the most recent iteration of El Clasico.

He worked hard, made a series of excellent runs and, perhaps most importantly, facilitated much of Real Madrid’s best build-up play.

Karim Benzema's journey from the next Anelka to Real Madrid mainstay

In fact, he just about managed to roll all of these characteristics into a single moment of quality immediately before Los Blancos’ only goal of the match.

Initially, he made a lovely run in behind Barcelona’s defence, and as he did so, he created an opening wide enough for his much-vaunted teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo, to exploit. Without an excellent pass, however, this wouldn’t have been possible, but it was at that moment Benzema provided the deftest of back-heeled flicks. Ronaldo had no hesitation in applying the finish, and while it was the Portuguese who emblazoned his name upon the scoresheet, there could be no doubting Benzema’s contribution.

And in recent times, that has become something of a theme for the capital club. Indeed, the 27-year-old has firmly cemented his place amongst Real Madrid’s “BBC,” an attacking triumvirate that features the talents of Gareth Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema himself. He is both happy at the club and producing on the pitch, and given his tireless running and supreme link-up play, it’s probably fair to suggest that his teammates are equally pleased with his presence in the side.

And yet, despite the fact that this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t always this way for the Frenchman. In direct contrast to the consistent and reliable Benzema we see today, he was in-and-out of the side during his first 18 months at the club. His first season was especially difficult, as he failed to get anywhere near his biggest rival, Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain, in terms of performance.

Whereas Benzema managed a paltry eight league goals throughout the course of that campaign, Higuain lashed in 27 in just 32 appearances. In that sense there was no comparison, and for the start of the 2010/11 season, too, Higuain was clearly manager José Mourinho’s preference up front.

Then it happened. Despite Mourinho’s pleas to sign another striker in the summer, Real Madrid went into that season with only Benzema and Higuain. This lack of depth had worried the Portuguese coach, and sure enough, in mid-December, his fears came to fruition. His most prolific hitman went down with a back injury, and one which would leave him sidelined for roughly 4 months. That Los Blancos were down to just one striker was a big concern for Mourinho, but as it turned out, not his greatest.

Sure, with just one striker he was a little short on personnel, but the fact that it was Benzema? Well, that was the big problem.

It wasn’t just the ex-Lyon prodigy’s lack of sharpness in front of goal, either. Although it must be said that he had only scored once in La Liga up until that point, it must also be said that his personality was just as troublesome for his employers. He appeared a little bit too laid-back for their liking, a little too lazy and a little too insular.

Mourinho was particularly unimpressed. He grumbled that, when training started at 10am, Benzema was still “half-asleep.” And, when musing on team selection, he said “I know that making him play is the best thing I can do for Benzema, but is it the best thing for the team?” He wasn’t done there, either. Mourinho later complained that “Karim’s playing because I have got nothing else,” and, most famously, compared Benzema to a cat. “If I can’t hunt with a dog,” he said, “I’ll hunt with the cat.”

When saying this, it’s hard to imagine that Mourinho wasn’t missing his dog, in Higuain. “With a dog you hunt more and you hunt better. But if you have not got a dog and you have got a cat, you hunt with a cat.” And Benzema, at this stage, was little more than a cat. Even worse, he was a cat who struggled to communicate with his teammates, largely because of his failure to take his Spanish studies seriously.

In truth, it’s probably fair to say that Benzema was somewhat misunderstood. After all, he was both quiet and shy, not to mention a youngster trying to find his way in a new country full of different surroundings. Then again, though, there were times when he fell out with his teammates at national level too, and with some of the senior players in the squad labelling him as “arrogant,” it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t some truth to all of this. Not even Kaka could resist sinking the boot in. “We have the feeling,” he said, “that Karim could do rather more.”

Naturally enough, Mourinho agreed, so to say things weren’t going well for the Frenchman would be something of an understatement. To make matters worse, all of this came within the context of a £30 million transfer fee. It’s one thing to be a lazy under performer with a small fee attached to your name, but when it’s one so sizeable, there is simply no excuse. Benzema was falling short on all counts, and in a number of ways, his stay in the Spanish capital was starting to resemble that of compatriot Nicolas Anelka.

Signed from Arsenal for £22.3 million, Anelka endured a turbulent time at Real Madrid during his solitary season with the club. Just as Benzema struggled with the language barrier early on, so too did Anelka and, at a time when clubs didn’t pay as much attention to assisting new players with relocation, the nomadic striker felt under appreciated. According to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their book Soccernomics, there was no one to greet him when he first reported to the club. He wasn’t assigned a locker in the first-team dressing room either, and from that point on, it seems that Anelka was isolated and unable to settle. “I am alone against the rest of the team,” he said.

In March 2000, by then feeling marginalised and unhappy about how he was being used on the pitch, the Frenchman refused to train. Real Madrid showed little pity, hitting him with a 45-day ban, and although he finished the season as a Champions League winner, he was soon shipped off to PSG, for £20 million, in the off-season.

Anelka continued to fall out with others regularly as he jumped from club-to- club and from country-to-country, and for Benzema, as a player who had upset those around him at both club and international level, it seemed as though his career was following a similar trajectory. Moreover, Mourinho finally got his wish to add another striker to the squad in the wake of Higuain’s injury.

Emmanuel Adebayor joined on loan from Manchester City, and with everything that had come before, it looked like the end for Benzema. Out of favour and out of goals, Mourinho would surely side with the Togolese forward, and before long, Higuain would be back from injury, too. This had to be it for Benzema.

And yet, despite all of the signs pointing to the contrary, it wasn’t. Instead, Adebayor’s arrival proved to be the making of him. The solitary league goal he turned in prior to the New Year became a distant memory, as he hammered home 14 from January onwards. Benzema also scored in four consecutive Champions League games, and this sudden renaissance, seemingly sparked by a combination of more playing time and a reduction in individual pressure, gave him the momentum to push on.

To put it down to those two factors alone, however, would be misleading. Indeed, a certain Zinedine Zidane, so often a source of inspiration to young French-Algerian players, also played a pivotal role in Benzema’s turnaround. Michael Cox wrote of this in a recent article on the player, noting that “Zidane made him (Benzema) more professional. He encouraged Benzema to brush up on his language skills and enjoy a quiet social life and also advised him on fitness. In 2011, at Zidane’s recommendation, Benzema spent the summer at a health club in the French mountains, eating a specially designed diet that enabled him to lose around seven kilograms.”

That time spent in the leafy surrounds of the French countryside appeared to have an immediate impact, for Benzema produced some brilliant goal-scoring form the following season. He scored 21 times in the league and further punctuated that tally with another seven in continental play, and while that was a terrific effort in itself, Zidane’s influence didn’t end there.

Brought on as a part of Carlo Ancelotti’s coaching staff in 2013, Zidane became an assistant coach to the first team. He may have only spent one year in the role, but Ancelotti was quick to point to his impact on Benzema’s game during that time. “I think Zidane’s done fantastic work,” he told RMC Sport, “especially with Karim.”

Benzema, of course, was quick to agree. “One day, I’d like to train under Zidane at Real Madrid,” he said. “I had a little preview of it last year, when we worked closely. We spent a lot of time together. He supported me a lot in both sporting and human aspects. Zizou is a great person. I consider him as a brother…I sincerely hope that one day he’ll train the first team.”

From that alone, it’s clear Benzema’s bond with Zidane runs much deeper than that of the standard coach/player relationship, and given the reawakening Zidane facilitated within the now 27-year-old’s game, perhaps that shouldn’t come as any great surprise. After all, Benzema went from a player very much on the fringes at Real Madrid, and one very much in the firing line, to a mainstay in the front line.

Whereas he was once the cat to Higuain’s dog, Benzema eventually shrugged off the challenge from the Argentine. And while the likes of Mesut Ozil, Angel di Maria and Higuain himself have moved on, Benzema remains. “I’m not a cat anymore,” he said. “Now, I’m a lion.”

More than that, he’s a Champions League winner after last season’s triumph, and perhaps most importantly after his inauspicious start to life in the Spanish capital, he managed to do so without the same level of acrimony as Anelka, his ill-fated compatriot.

There still remains, however, the suspicion that Benzema should score more goals. It’s not that he records poor tallies in front of goal – last season he hit 17 in La Liga and five in Europe – it’s just that, as the leader of Los Blancos’ attacking trident, people appear to expect more. But to expect Benzema to trouble the scorers to a greater degree is, in some ways, to misunderstand his role.

Despite wearing the number nine shirt and being the nominal centre forward, he’s not Real Madrid’s main source of goals. That mantle belongs to left-winger Ronaldo, who not only scored 31 goals last year in La Liga, but already has the same amount at this point in the season, with 10 games still to play. Throw Gareth Bale into the mix, a genuine Galactico who comes in off the other flank, and Benzema doesn’t need to be overly prolific.

Instead, he needs to be the inventive pivot around which these two men can maximise their abilities. And, far from the slightly self-absorbed figure of the past, he has grown into this role brilliantly. Last season alone he recorded 14 assists across La Liga and the Champions League, and with plenty of games still to play in the current campaign, he has already directly provided his teammates with 10 goals.

His nine La Liga assists currently see him equal-third in the standings, while his 1.6 key passes per game places him ahead of teammate and midfield dynamo Isco. Moreover, six of his assists have enabled Ronaldo to score, and it’s perhaps for that reason, together with his improved linguistics, that Benzema is such a popular character with the Portuguese star.

Yet while the statistics above illuminate his passing ability, Benzema’s movement is just as significant to Real Madrid. Indeed, he’s very much a team-oriented footballer, which not only means he is much happier to do the grunt work than he once was, but also that his hard running is often directed at clearing space for others. These days, in fact, it’s rare to see the Frenchman holding a static position up front, and in a side that’s blessed with an enormous amount of counter-attacking talent, Benzema likes to come towards the ball, hold it up and bring his teammates into the game.

His aforementioned assist in El Clasico was a pristine example of his knack for making brilliant decoy runs, too, as his dart towards the left-hand side drew a defender towards him, thus creating a chasm in the heart of Barcelona’s back four. Ronaldo happily ran into it and scored after being delightfully teed up by Benzema’s back-heel, and it’s due to this style of play that Graham Hunter once described him as a “Hidden 10,” or someone who operates more as a creator than a pure goal-scorer in spite of his starting position.

Zidane, Benzema’s mentor, concurs with this line of thinking. “Maybe people want him to score 60 goals a season like Cristiano Ronaldo, but he’s not going to do that,” he said. “Benzema’s more of a play maker. He likes linking play, which suits Real Madrid down to the ground.”

Clearly, then, this is the sort of thing Benzema does best. He prompts and probes, runs hard in a selfless manner and, while his goal-scoring exploits are pretty impressive, it’s this ability to create and to facilitate that makes him so important to Ancelotti’s side. It may have taken him some time and some trouble to get to this point, but now that he’s here and entering his prime at 27 years of age, it’s hard to see him going anywhere but up.

Originally published at licencetoroam.net

Post written by Will Stratmann, Twitter: @willstratmann
for Licence to Roam, Blog: licencetoroam.net, Twitter: @licencetoroam

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