Karim Benzema — The prodigy who became a 'Galactico' at Real Madrid

Benzema has 44 goals in 44 matches in the 2021-22 season, with the Frenchamn becoming the joint-second highest goal scorer for Real Madrid with 323 goals in all competitions.

Karim Benzema has led Real Madrid to the La Liga crown and into the final of the Champions League this season.   -  GETTY IMAGES

When Real Madrid’s hopes in the Champions League were almost done, its home, the Santiago Bernabeu’s gates saw fans leaving the stadium. Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola smiled in presumption. But just then, something changed.

In the 90th minute, Real’s striker Karim Benzema set up Rodrygo, who nicked it in. A minute later, Rodrygo headed in his second and the Spanish team was back level — 5-5 on aggregate.

In extra-time, Benzema earned and put away the penalty to put Los Blancos in front, to complete another remarkable comeback.

Real Madrid resurrected a dying colosseum into an altar of royal whites as Carlo Ancelotti and the entire stadium exploded in joy. Real was into finals of the UEFA Champions League, for a record 17th time.

The comebacks for Los Blancos in this season’s champions league have not been an anomaly, but a recurrent happening — each one more gobsmacking than the last.

The outstanding star in all the three knockout fixtures — Karim Benzema.

The 34-year-old scored a hat-trick and tie-clinching goal against defending UCL champion Chelsea, and was directly involved in two of the three goals in the second leg against Manchester City that guided Real to the final.

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Benzema has mattered when the Spanish club needed him the most — an ideal definition of a clutch player, a status Cristiano Ronaldo used to enjoy at the same club not so long ago.

The Frenchman had joined Real Madrid at a time when club president Florentino Perez was signing a new generation of galacticos — the ones to pass over the baton to — from Ronaldo Nazario, Luis Figo, David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane.

World cup winner Kaka (AC Milan), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United) and Xabi Alonso (Liverpool) had joined the club in the 2009-10 transfer window — all Champions League winners with their former clubs.

Then came Benzema, a 21-year-old prodigal forward from Lyon for 30 million pounds.

In his first season, he spent most of the time on the bench as Kaka, Ronaldo and then the preferred striker Gonzalo Higuain, enjoyed regular game time. Higuain scored 27 goals in 32 matches in the league, while Benzema scored eight.

As managers changed from Manuel Pellegrini to Jose Mourinho, Benzema’s form improved initially, but the manager’s trust in the striker kept on falling as (Cristiano) Ronaldo was favoured as the No.9.

Benzema endured a frosty relationship with former Real manager Jose Mourinho, who left in 2013. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

 

When Real Madrid won its first trophy -- the Copa del Rey -- under Mourinho, Benzema did not start.

The spat between the two got uglier eventually as Mourinho openly lambasted the French striker.

“If I can't hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat. With a dog, you hunt more and you hunt better. But if you have not got a dog and you have got a cat, you hunt with a cat," he had said about Benzema.

Mourinho left two years later. The manager that followed was Ancelotti — one, under whom Benzema found his moment under the sun.

After Gareth Bale’s record signing from Tottenham Hotspur, Bale, Benzema and Cristiano formed one of the fiercest attacking trios in Europe – nicknamed the BBC. By January 2018, the trio added 400 goals between them for Real Madrid.

The trio of Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo led Real to unprecedented success in the Champions League. Photo: AFP

 

The spotlight for the key striker still belonged to Ronaldo. As the Portuguese international became the club’s highest goalscorer of all time, Benzema’s goal tally per season fell below 20 at first and then below 15.

His spell with the National team also took an ugly turn. After being allegedly involved in a sex-tape blackmail scandal of a France teammate, Mathieu Valbuena, Benzema was omitted from the Euro 2016 squad on home soil and he did not don the Les Blues jersey for six years.

When Ronaldo left Real Madrid in 2018 with 451 goals to his name, it turned to Benzema for solutions.

Benzema, the Jimmy Valentine of Santiago Bernabeu rolled up his sleeves, pulled up his socks and made a stunning comeback, scoring 30 goals in the club’s first season since Ronaldo’s exit.

The 34-year-old has not looked back since.

He rose from the debris of oblivion for the National team too, making a return for France in June 2021. He won the Bronze boot at the European Championship, ending the tournament as the third highest goal scorer with four goals.

In the Champions League this year, he has led the attack from the front, scoring two hat-tricks and orchestrating stunning comebacks against Paris St. Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City in the round-of-16, quarterfinals and semifinals respectively.

Despite losing six years of international football, he is the fifth-highest goalscorer for France with 35 goals and the joint second-highest goalscorer of Real Madrid with Raul (323 goals).

This season, he has 44 goals and 15 assists in 43 matches — Benzema’s best-ever season at Real Madrid. 

The French forward had arrived at Bernabeu as an option for the future in a crowd of superstars of the game.

He has outlived all of them in Madrid and has become a club legend, taking Real Madrid to the Champions League final as a leader, striker and above all, a galactico.

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