Underrated Benzema justly rewarded
When Karim Benzema was replaced by Alvaro Morata in Real Madrid's 4-1 victory over Getafe almost a year ago, Alvaro Arbeloa urged the traditionally hard-to-please Bernabeu crowd not to boo his teammate as he trudged off the pitch to take his seat in the dugout.
Madrid were 3-1 up and en route to taking 13 points from a possible 15 from their opening five matches of the season. Benzema was leading the line and had contributed two goals and as many assists. But it wasn't enough.
Back then there were calls for golden boy Morata to replace the Frenchman in the starting lineup. Benzema wasn't cutting the mustard, as far as Madridistas were concerned, with experienced competition for the No. 9 role drying up following the sale of Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli. The pair had rotated perfectly the season before, but president Florentino Perez entrusted Benzema to flourish as the club's out-and-out starter. Something wasn't working.
That came in the middle of a six-game spell without a goal for the former Lyon man, signed as one of the first "Galacticos" in Perez's second spell at the helm alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, and it was arguably his toughest spell since arriving in the Spanish capital.
It culminated in Morata saving Los Blancos' bacon as they came from behind to defeat Levante 3-2 and in Benzema being dropped for the first El Clasico of the season at the Camp Nou. Gareth Bale moved central with Ronaldo and Angel di Maria occupying the flanks. That blow for Benzema acted as the flame that lit the blue touch paper, it was a blessing in disguise.
The France international, who had also been booed on national duty after going 1,000 minutes without finding the back of the net, returned the following match as Madrid trounced Sevilla 7-3 on home soil. He scored twice and set up two more before going on to add to his goal-scoring tally in each of his next four appearances. The game marked the start of the "BBC" of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano, and Madrid didn't look back. Madrid's leading striker was central, quite literally, to that.
Fast-forward 10 months and those dark days for the Frenchman are all but forgotten. Benzema finished the season with 24 goals in all competitions and lifted the Champions League and Copa del Rey. His reward was announced on Wednesday in the form of a new and improved contract with Madrid that will keep him at the Bernabeu for another five years. Many have doubted Benzema throughout his five years at the club, but Perez has kept faith through it all.
The 26-year-old has scored 111 goals in 235 matches for Madrid and has added La Decima, La Liga, two Copa del Reys and one Spanish Super Cup to his trophy cabinet. His best tally came in the 2011-12 season when he netted 32 goals, while Benzema is well known to shine on the European stage with 36 goals coming in 64 matches.
The trouble has been that those stats, although impressive, are not on the same level as Cristiano Ronaldo's. The trouble has been that Madridistas like their players to play with passion, and although Benzema cannot be directly criticised for lacking passion and will, his body language often suggests otherwise.
Add the fact that he is not an exemplary finisher -- he will often miss as many as he scores. He scored twice in four minutes as Madrid came from behind to lead Barcelona 2-1 at the Bernabeu in April but missed another sitter that would have made it 3-1 and given his side breathing space. That's Benzema.
Those are traits that Madrid fans will have to get used to if they haven't already. While many have been pining for Los Merengues to buy Falcao, a more clinical finisher in front of goal, and before that Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero, Benzema is the man manager Carlo Ancelotti wants and he is the man that suits Madrid's attack and way of thinking.
"In this team I have Karim Benzema, who is very reliable, and I can use other players there," Ancelotti told Spanish sports newspaper Marca during the club's preseason trip to the United States.
He added: "It's not important to have a striker that scores that many goals but a player who passes to Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale. We won't look for another striker because we don't need one."
While it's true that Benzema plays second fiddle to its two biggest stars, he is a crucial cog in the overall system. Strikers are judged on goals, but the Frenchman is key in letting his two attacking partners loose, contributing nine assists in La Liga last season and coming fourth only to Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Real Sociedad's Carlos Vela in contribution to goals scored in Spain's top flight over the last two seasons.
Ancelotti therefore doesn't want to upset the chemistry in an attacking lineup that is one of the most feared in Europe alongside Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The Italian still has a welcome selection headache over his first-choice starting 11, but whatever he goes with, Benzema is expected to be one of the first names down on the team sheet. A 4-3-3, largely successful last season, would see him central to the "BBC" with Isco, James Rodriguez and the returning Jese as backup, while a change to 4-2-3-1 would see him up top with Ronaldo, Rodriguez and Bale in behind.
The fear from some Madridistas will be whether the new deal will see the Frenchman rest on his laurels. With Bale and Ronaldo in support, Benzema is going to get chances and will always return with a decent goal tally, but any lax approach in other aspects of his game would have a detrimental impact on the team.
The arrival of Rodriguez and the possible addition of another front man should keep him on his toes. On the other side of the coin, however, the departure of Zinedine Zidane, who worked closely with his countryman, to manage Madrid's second team Castilla will be watched with intrigue. The absence of a World Cup at the end of the season to aim for may also be noticeable.
Benzema may end up staying in the Spanish capital for a decade in the famous all-white shirt on the back of his new deal, but he may never truly become a fans' favourite at the Bernabeu.
He's made strides forward over the last year, however, and one thing he has shown is grit and determination to become the entrusted No. 9 for the European champions. Former manager Jose Mourinho once said that "if you can't go hunting with your dog then you have to take your cat," in reaction to Higuain's sale and Benzema's promotion to a starter week in, week out.
That cat is purring at the moment and will be crucial as Los Blancos battle for silverware on six fronts this season.