Are Karim Benzema's best days officially behind him?
Karim Benzema's Clasico ended in depressingly familiar fashion. On 66 minutes, just after Barcelona had scored their second goal, Benzema's number came up. The first of the starting XI to be summoned to the bench, the Real Madrid striker trudged off the pitch with a cacophony of jeers from the stands ringing in his ears.
It was Groundhog Day for Benzema. But unlike Bill Murray, no matter how many times he was handed the chance to turn fate to his advantage, the under-fire forward kept failing to grasp the opportunity. Several promising attacks broke down on Benzema's boots, his final ball going astray or a defender dispossessing him. At times it appeared he had run out of ideas, his ability to pick a pass left behind in the changing room with his confidence for company.
A second-half header that thumped the upright was well-taken, Benzema stealing a yard in front of Thomas Vermaelen and cushioning his effort toward the far post. It was the sort of attempt that on another day would have crept in. For Benzema, that has become an unwanted punchline to the script of his season.
Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson recently said that given his side's position they could not afford to carry anybody, "let alone a goalscorer who isn't scoring goals." The comment was in reference to Christian Benteke, who hadn't found the net all season and in an ill-judged effort to snap his streak took the ball from designated penalty taker Luka Milivojevic in a game against Bournemouth with the score at 2-2 only to scuff his shot horribly, costing his side two precious points.
Hodgson's words had the desired effect. In Palace's next away game, the Belgium international scored and provided an assist as Leicester were seen off 3-0 at the King Power.
By contrast, Zinedine Zidane has done nothing this season but defend an increasingly out-of-sorts Benzema, most infamously against accusations from former Barca and Spurs striker Gary Lineker, fishing for a bite after the Champions League meeting between Tottenham and Madrid at the Bernabeu, that the Real striker is a "tad overrated."
Zidane bristled at the suggestion, stating: "People think a No. 9 here [at Madrid] needs to score 50, 60 goals. Karim will not score 60, but he will score 25, 30 and set up 30 or 40."
The Real coach toed the same party line at the Club World Cup, describing Benzema as a "different player" and a consummate team performer. That cannot be denied: grafting under the lengthy shadow cast by Cristiano Ronaldo would surgically remove the ego of more selfish players than Benzema.
However, Zidane's statistics were a little flattering. Benzema has broken the 25-goal mark in all competitions on three occasions for Real Madrid. His overall record is impressive: He recently overtook Bernabeu legend Paco Gento to move into seventh on the all-time list of scorers for the club.
But the only numbers that matter are current, and last season Benzema failed to break 20 for the first time since his 2009-10 debut campaign. This season he has just five overall and is on course at his current rate to score seven or eight in the league, where he is worth a goal every 442 minutes.
Benzema's finest season in terms of assists reaped 21 in all competitions, in 2012-13. Last season he managed nine. With almost half of 2017-18 played, Benzema has provided only three.
Florentino Perez's admiration for his starting striker is unswerving and also part of the underlying problem. Benzema has never faced any serious competition for his shirt, the club preferring to sign back-ups and understudies to the leading actor. But with the Frenchman fluffing his lines more frequently than ever, presidential patience must have a breaking point. At what stage do Perez and Zidane decide to say "Au revoir, Karim" and "Thanks for everything"?
The January market is on the horizon and it is little secret that overtures were made toward Kylian Mbappe last summer. That deal fell through chiefly because PSG were able to guarantee the precocious France international a starting spot. No striker coming into the Bernabeu under the status quo is under any illusion about his place in the grander scheme. As Benzema said recently: "If I am starting, there is no need to go anywhere else."
Benzema, who celebrated his 30th birthday last week, is an extraordinary player. He has never and will never be able to keep up with Ronaldo in the scoring stakes but, as Zidane consistently states, he brings something else to the table, by splitting back fours and pulling players out of position. At the moment, that sounds like staking a claim to helping build the Eiffel Tower by directing traffic.
Benzema should not consider his position unassailable. That most of Real's likely replacement targets are ineligible in the Champions League until next season buys him some time. But with half of Europe trying to play themselves into a World Cup that France will -- barring an unlikely U-Turn by Didier Deschamps -- contest without Benzema, the Real striker needs to tap a new source of motivation quickly before Perez decides simply to purchase one over his head.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.