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Aug 27, 2011

Benzema ready to flourish at Real

The delay to the start of the La Liga season may be frustrating Spanish football fans, but nobody will be as eager for the new campaign to begin as Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema.

Pronounced 'dead' by Marca after failing to shine in a Copa del Rey match at third-tier Murcia last October, the Frenchman belatedly seized his opportunity when Gonzalo Higuaín was sidelined by a back injury in December and he has not looked back. Having lost seven kilos over the summer break, the 23-year-old scored nine goals in eight pre-season matches and will start the season as Real Madrid's first-choice centre forward.

"I'm at 100% and I have no physical problems," he told L'Equipe. "During the holidays I didn't stop playing football. I played with my friends. Above all I've taken control of my fitness and you can see it on the pitch."

The image that Benzema has presented in pre-season - lithe, happy and relaxed - seems a world away from the shy, slightly uncertain 21-year-old who arrived in Madrid, barely able to mumble a word of Spanish, in the summer of 2009. Despite the €35 million transfer fee, and the reported interest from Barcelona, Inter Milan and Manchester United, there was an air of afterthought about his arrival. Where 90,000 fans flocked to the Bernabeu to welcome Cristiano Ronaldo to the club and 55,000 came to Kaka's official presentation, only 20,000 supporters turned up for Benzema's unveiling. A star, yes, but not a true galactico.

Benzema scored on his debut in a 1-0 pre-season win at Shamrock Rovers but then wilted in the face of the competition from Higuaín, whose 27 goals saw him finish second only to Lionel Messi in the 2009-10 Pichichi standings. Benzema ended the season with just nine goals in all competitions, costing him his place in France's 2010 World Cup squad, and then had to suffer the humiliation of being implicated in an under-age prostitution scandal alongside France team-mates Franck Ribery and Sidney Govou.

Having inherited the No. 9 shirt from Ronaldo, who took the No. 7 jersey vacated by Raul, he promised that the 2010-11 season would be "my year", but immediately fell foul of new coach Jose Mourinho. Irked by Benzema's lack of application, Mourinho took to upbraiding him in training - echoing the treatment that Benzema's hero, the Brazilian Ronaldo, had received from one of Mourinho's predecessors, Fabio Capello. "I'll have to schedule training at midday for you, because at 10 o'clock you arrive asleep and at 11 o'clock you're still sleeping," was one Mourinho barb reported by Marca.

A member of France's feted '1987 generation' - alongside Samir Nasri, Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa - Benzema was part of the France squad that won the Under-17 European Championship in 2004 and, upon graduating from the Lyon academy, he ambled straight into one of the greatest club sides in French history. Preternaturally gifted and having only ever known success, the allegation was that Benzema did not possess the stomach to impose himself at one of Europe's grandest clubs. "He's not used to working," admitted Laurent Blanc.

It was against this backdrop that Benzema's professional death was announced by Marca, only for fortune to smile on him when Higuaín was diagnosed with a slipped disc that kept him out of action until April. Mourinho's noisy campaign to bring a new striker to the club having failed, the Portuguese had no choice but to turn to Benzema and at last the Frenchman responded. A goal at Ajax in the Champions League was followed by a hat-trick against Auxerre and then another triple in an 8-0 demolition of Levante in the cup three days before Christmas.

Smiling rather than sullen, his arm frequently draped across the shoulders of his changing room ally Ronaldo, the image of Benzema in the Spanish press was transformed. Although only selected to start one of the four clasicos in the spring - and despite competition from loan signing Emmanuel Adebayor - he finished the campaign with 26 goals. "Mourinho is very different to the coaches I've known before," he said. "Does he have to pull me by the ears? Yes, often. But it does me good."

His delayed impact at Real mirrors his growing importance to France, for whom he had been the No. 9 in waiting ever since he made his Lyon debut aged 17 in a league match against Metz in January 2005. After netting in a crucial Euro 2012 qualifying win away to Bosnia-Herzegovina last September, he was also on target in prestige friendly wins over England and Brazil. "I think he's moved up a level," observed his former Lyon colleague Hugo Lloris. "He is France's most important player today."

Mourinho has gradually come to appreciate that, although he does not possess Higuain's dead-eyed coolness in front of goal, Benzema is a more cunning operator in the key areas on the periphery of the opposition's penalty box. He demonstrated as much in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup loss to Barcelona, ghosting away from Eric Abidal before sliding a measured pass to Mesut Ozil for the opening goal.

His goal in the return leg, meanwhile, was the work of a striker in peak form. Thwarted at the first attempt by Victor Valdes, when the ball returned to him a second later he adjusted his feet in the blink of an eye to stab home a left-footed shot that, in its alertness and economy of movement, bore the hallmark of the great goalscorers.

The patience from which Benzema has benefited at Real may owe something to the influence of Zinedine Zidane in the corridors of power at the Bernabeu, and it is to Zidane that thoughts most readily turn when Benzema is on his game. There is a thoughtful deliberateness and a sinewy elegance to Benzema that recalls Zidane at his most beguiling, right down to the way the youngster cajoles the ball with the outside of his foot when in possession.

Real have already taken one shaven-headed and softly spoken Frenchman of Algerian descent to their hearts. If Benzema gets the better of Barcelona this season, he will be remembered just as fondly.

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