Benzema's importance to Ronaldo makes Isco's place in Real XI tenuous
If absence really does make the heart grow fonder, as the old saying goes, then Cristiano Ronaldo will be missing Karim Benzema like a jilted lover at the moment.
The Portuguese goal machine failed to hit the target for a third consecutive Liga game in Real Madrid's 2-0 victory over Espanyol on Sunday, something that has happened only seven times since he arrived at the Bernabeu for a then-world-record fee in the summer of 2009. A run of four Liga games without a strike has occurred only once previously, in 2015-16.
Ronaldo goal droughts are about as common as a lack of rain in Galicia, where he has scored 26 in just 17 games against Deportivo La Coruna and Celta Vigo, but they are not dropping from the sky for the club's record scorer at the moment. Ronaldo has banged in a staggering 285 goals in 268 games in La Liga during his time at the Bernabeu, and there has always been one constant to his prolific scoring: Benzema.
No player throughout Ronaldo's career has provided more assistance to his assault on the record books, and more than half of Benzema's 70 goal-scoring passes at Real Madrid have landed at the boots of his strike partner. That is not a surprising statistic given the amount of playing time the two have shared at the Bernabeu, but it goes some way to explaining a very rare absence of Ronaldo's name on the scorer's sheet in the early exchanges in La Liga this season with Benzema out injured.
The Portuguese was banned for the opening four games of domestic action for a petulant shove on the referee during the Spanish Super Cup and was available belatedly for the Liga defeat by Real Betis, where of 12 attempts only two hit the target. Against Alaves, Ronaldo had one shot on target and hit the woodwork twice. Against Espanyol, he managed just a single shot on target from five attempts as Isco took all the plaudits for dragging Zinedine Zidane's side out of their recent rut at home.
The Spain international is currently the closest thing Real have to the untouchable status so often maligned under previous managers, and with good reason. A more in-form goal-scoring midfielder capable of turning a game on his own is difficult to find across Europe's top divisions at the moment, and he would surely walk into the starting 11 of any of this season's Champions League favourites.
What Isco doesn't do -- and this is the primary reason he might find himself back on the bench before too long, despite his state of grace -- is facilitate Ronaldo. That is Benzema's raison d'etre. Football is a business, and Real Madrid are in the business of marketing Ronaldo on the global stage. Win, lose or draw, the Portuguese needs to be seen as the focal point of the side. Benzema alluded to the idea during the formalities of his contract renewal: "A striker is not just goals."
This naturally drew flak from the Spanish dailies, but the thesis is sound. If you have a player such as Ronaldo, who scores at a ratio of 1.03 goals per game, getting the ball to his feet is the main objective of his teammates. Benzema understands this and is willing to sacrifice his own numbers for the greater good. There is no agenda where the Frenchman is concerned, and those that point to a lack of goals from Benzema are missing the point. Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole despised each other, but the latter profited from the former's team ethic as Manchester United asserted their dominance in the late 1990s.
Benzema and Ronaldo wouldn't dream of not passing to each other. Their understanding of the other's movement and positioning has been instrumental in Real's recent omnipotence. That is the simple reason that so much bluster about replacing Benzema can be consigned to tabloid desperation. The departure of Alvaro Morata was met with plenty of handwringing after a 20-goal season, but Real's board have finally divorced pragmatism from romanticism.
Morata might have gone on to a promising start in his Chelsea career, but he was never a direct understudy to Benzema. There is no player currently on the market who is. Isco is the closest thing Real Madrid have, and he steps into the breach admirably. But when dear friends are required, Zidane has two who are perfectly able to fill his requirements. That is why Ronaldo and Benzema are guaranteed starters and also the reason that when the Frenchman returns from injury, Ronaldo will be on the score sheet again.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.