Everything surrounding Karim Benzema this season off the pitch is a complete travesty. The extortion case involving himself and French teammate Matthew Valbuena raises questions about Karim's character - after all, this isn't the first time he's made a terrible choice at a professional level - but once you get past his personal life (or just chose to ignore everything he does outside of football) you will realize Benzema is having one of the best seasons of his career.
It took some patience for Real Madrid fans to finally reap the fruits of Karim's signing. Back in 2009, Benzema's signing came as somewhat of a surprise. He wasn't Florentino Perez's first-choice striker, but eventually become like a son to him. Not an exaggeration to say that by any means, by the way. Perez's longing to see Benzema succeed is impressive. Normally reserved, Perez rarely celebrates goals in the stands, but he did on one or two occasions when Benzema scored amidst a struggle when Mourinho was essentially pushing him out. Mustering up a fist pump and a smile, Perez was thrilled when Karim was scoring his way out of a slump. Surely, the reasons for supporting Karim were obvious. Kaka had essentially flopped, and ex-president Ramon Calderon was continually getting credit for Ronaldo's signing - leaving Benzema as the player who absolutely must succeed.
After splashing out big during a historic Summer that brought Ronaldo and Kaka, Perez had his eyes on David Villa in a move that was widely seen as done-and-dusted. At the time, Villa was arguably the best striker around, could score with both feet, was extremely versatile, and the fact that he was Spanish was a bonus. Only Samuel Eto'o had scored more goals than him in the previous half-a-decade. It was a dream signing - the perfect compliment to Ronaldo and Kaka as Real Madrid were rebuilding their attack.
The signing collapsed as Valencia wanted more money than Real were willing to dish out. Florentino had €40m on the table, Valencia retorted that all things are relative. If Ronaldo had cost €94m in the same season, why don't Real see more value in David Villa who was lighting up La Liga? Valdano had a good point though if you look at it from a business perspective: "There are players who generate money and players who only have a footballing value." And that was that.
Benzema's near-immediate signing in response to Valencia's refusal to sell pretty-well erased any dismay that Madridistas had. Seven years later, despite some heavy turmoil and a dark cloud around Benzema's personal life that may effect his career in a bad way still, Real Madrid fans are enjoying the best version of Karim Benzema as a footballer they've ever seen. Not to say that he wasn't good, nay, really good in previous years; but it was clear in 2009 that Benzema's signing was a long-term investment, whereas Villa's would've been an immediate pay-off.
Benzema hasn't been immune to constant criticism. He went through dark spells where he could barely keep up with Higuain's rampant form. Ultimately, Higuain proved he wasn't scoring all his goals in big games, and the board gave Benzema the ultimate vote of confidence by selling the Argentine striker. But that took a lot of convincing, and it took a certain Adebayor to light the fire in Benzema's attitude towards football - in an indirect way.
Benzema's attitude was an issue, for one. He would walk around the pitch lackadaisically under Mourinho which was frustrating to the entire organization and its fans. At one point Kaka slipped, publicly stating that Benzema 'could do more'. Mourinho backed the comments, insinuating that Benzema was basically the elephant in the room. Then came the famous quote: "If I can't hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat". The cat was Benzema, obviously. It was a harsh and candid statement, but it was hard to argue with. Mourinho used to have Drogba as a striker who really was, in a good way, a complete dog.
It was so bad at one point, that even despite Benzema being the only striker on the team with Higuain on the sidelines, Mourinho still opted to bench Benzema while putting Ronaldo as the striker. That didn't work so well, as Ronaldo was never meant to be a '9', and always thrives in a slightly deeper position - and on the flank at that. Mourinho forced the hand, and Real Madrid brought in Adebayor from Manchester City. And that's when the reversal and complete rejuvenation of Karim Benzema took place. Despite some instances where Benzema got the sack for tactical reasons (see Copa Del Rey final in 2011, where Mourinho played Ronaldo as the striker and Adebayor eventually came on as a sub), the French striker rose - just when he looked like he was buried for good.
Benzema started scoring - in big games too - and looked hungry on the pitch. Not only was he conducive to the offensive flow, but also started dropping back to defend, and pressured opposing defenders relentlessly. He was now a self-proclaimed lion: "I'm not a cat anymore. Now, I'm a lion."
And boom. Benzema has progressed every year as a footballer. This season in La Liga, he's averaging a goal per game - the most of any of his seasons with the team. Timely too, since Ronaldo is not his prolific self - something I wrote about for FourFourTwo not long ago. He's not just stat-padding either, as the eye-test makes Benzema look like a smooth and cool striker brimming with confidence.
In his first game under Zidane, Benzema scored two goals to take his goal-scoring ratio up to one per game. That's better than Neymar, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Gareth Bale. What's equally impressive is that his efficiency in front of goal does not get in the way of his ability to link up with team-mates and drop-back deep as a creator. He does well in build-up situations to contribute to goals he's indirectly involved in. Admittedly, he has zero assists in La Liga, but that is deceiving as he's often the player who creates a chance before an assist. Case-in-point, his outlet ball to Carvajal on Gareth Bale's first goal on the weekend:
If Benzema's latest game against Deportivo under Zidane was any indication, there is perhaps no better striker for Real Madrid than the French ace - even if there are better strikers out there.