Benzema's chance to shine
After arriving as part of Real's sensational summer spending spree, the future looked bright for Karim Benzema. Hailed as the new Zinedine Zidane, due in equal measure to his elegant style and eye for goal (as much as his nationality), a move to the Bernabéu seemed the perfect fit for the classy young forward.
However, a slow start to his time in Spain has left many Madrid supporters feeling any comparison to the mercurial Zidane lay purely in the former Lyon man's choice of haircut. The 22-year-old has seen his first-team chances limited this season by the fine form of Gonzalo Higuain and he has not completed a full game since his side's embarrassing 4-0 Copa del Rey first-leg defeat at the hands of Segunda Division B side Alcorcón back in October.
The Frenchman's time on the bench has even led to speculation that Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini is ready to cash-in on the striker only six months into his La Liga career, with a January move to Manchester United mooted.
With Benzema watching on, any hope of a recall seemed increasingly unlikely as Higuain inspired Madrid to a comfortable 2-0 win over Mallorca, improving his scoring record to 11 goals in 10 games in the process.
But Football can work in mysterious ways, and as the frustrated French forward - introduced with 15 minutes remaining in place of fellow big-money signing Kaka - charged around the Bernabéu pitch furiously trying to make an impression, it was man-of-the-match Higuain who went down injured in a tackle. The Argentine forward completed the full 90 minutes but tests after the game revealed an injury to his left foot, ruling him out for the next three weeks and handing Benzema a much-needed chance to shine.
The France international is set to start against Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames stadium on Saturday, and he will be desperately hoping to add to his record of six goals in 18 appearances for the Spanish giants.
Benzema came to Madrid with a reputation as a prolific goal scorer, after netting 27 goals for Lyon in each of the last two seasons. His ability to score goals in what was a struggling Lyon side last season ultimately convinced Madrid to part with the €35m (£29.1 million) it took to prise him away from the Stade de Gerland. Consequently, it was expected that Benzema would flourish and continue his rich scoring vein in a Real team including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Xabi Alonso. However, his last goal came in the 6-0 mauling of Real Zaragoza almost a month ago.
Despite recently admitting to being frustrated by a lack of match action, Benzema has attracted praise from players and club officials for his attitude in training and, following a heart-to-heart with his hero Zidane, he now seems ready to put up a real fight to force his way into the merengues first-team.
This new focus was evident when he recently spoke to Spanish newspaper Marca: "I do not want to miss this opportunity. I now have to prove I can play on this team. It seems that my coach is preparing for the final stretch of the season, and I want to be part of that."
Benzema's blip in front of goal may be a momentary lapse but his failure to fit into Pellegrini's new system, in similar fashion to Kaka, has been hard to ignore. The main difference between the two summer recruits though is that the Chilean manager has proved willing to adapt his tactics to include the Brazilian. Benzema has not been afforded the same good favour.
Like Kaka, Benzema has struggled with playing a bit-part role while the likes of Ronaldo, Alonso and Higuain enjoying the lion's share of match time. Whilst receiving plaudits for his goalscoring in France, Benzema operated in a similar style to Wayne Rooney, covering lots of ground and affecting the game at both ends of the pitch. At Real he has been asked to operate on the left of a three-pronged attack or as a lone frontman. Neither role has been met with much comfort by the youngster.
The importance of a return to form and regular football is doubly significant for the forward in a World Cup year. He has struggled to cement a place in Raymond Domenech's France team and a lack of playing time at Madrid has seen him fall down the international pecking order behind the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Sidney Govou and Andre-Pierre Gignac.
The 2007-2008 Ligue 1 player of the year will be well aware that a more successful spell at his club could well secure his spot on the plane to South Africa this summer and a glut of goals could persuade Domenech to split up his preferred pairing of Anelka and Henry.
The chances of Benzema leaving Spain this month seem unlikely with the injury to Higuain forcing Pellegrini's hand, and it is highly likely that a player of his quality will still play an important role in Madrid's future La Liga and Champions League campaigns. However, even if the Frenchman does find form over the next six months, it seems there is every chance that the talented youngster may be moved on in the summer, meaning he may be running out at a Premier League ground come August.