The 2014-15 football season of Real Madrid can be equated to a marriage that seemed perfect at the start, but ended in a disaster.
In the aftermath, Don Carlo was not the only one to depart. The Legendary Iker Casillas left his boyhood club, Real Madrid after a total of 725 appearances. After the Spaniard's departure, the Captain’s armband was rightfully passed to Sergio Ramos.
Real Madrid Striker, Karim Benzema too was passed something that belonged to the Saint. The scapegoat’s invisible armband. The scapegoat’s armband would indicate whom the press and the unforgiving Real Madrid fans could torment whenever Real Madrid would fail to achieve the desired results.
Iker Casillas had adorned the scapegoat’s armband since the Mourinho Era, but after the Saint’s departure, with Sami Khedira also leaving, the undisputed successor of the scapegoat’s armband would undoubtedly be Karim Benzema.
End of the First-Gen Galacticos and Start of the Roman Calderon Era
The First-Gen Galactico Era came to an end when Florentino Perez resigned as President of Real Madrid in February 2006 amidst poor performance by Real Madrid in all competitions. Figo had left for Inter Milan in the summer of 2005 and Zidane retired from football after the 2006 World Cup.
Ramon Calderon succeeded Perez as President. Calderon signed Ruud Van Nistelrooy from Manchester United and Fabio Cannavaro from Juventus. Van Nistelrooy and King Cannavaro were both world famous players, but made less noise compared to the Galacticos. The Calderon Era saw Real Madrid win 2 La Ligas in their first two years (2006-08). But, Real Madrid still suffered in the Champions League, upholding their curse of being eliminated in the round of 16 since 2002.
It was in January 2009 when the then President of Real Madrid, Ramon Calderon had resigned after finding himself neck-deep in corruption allegations. Calderon’s resignation was followed by a presidential election, which saw the return of Florentino Perez in his second term as President.
Perez once again vowed to sign big name superstars of the world in a bid to return the club to European glory, having last won the Champions League in 2002. The first batch of Galacticos signed was Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso. The second batch included Di Maria, Ozil, Modric, Bale, Kroos and James, all acquired in the following years.
In the Summer of 2009, with Florentino Perez at the helm, Real Madrid foresaw a Dutch-Exodus. It was evident that lots of talented players would have to depart to make room for ‘The Galacticos’. Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Royston Drenthe were the immediate casualties. Huntelaar was ousted from the Club after signing for them just a few months ago in January 2009 to make room for Karim Benzema.
Battle For the Frenchman’s Signature
Real Madrid had to battle Manchester United for the signature of Karim Benzema. It was no secret that the then manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson had an affection for Karim ever since United’s clash with Lyon in 2008, with Sir Alex gifting the Frenchman a Manchester United jersey after the match.
Madrid initially bid a modest 35 million Euros. As United got wind of Madrid’s bid, they bid 40 million Euros to convince Lyon. However, with Madrid submitting an improved bid of 41 million Euros and Karim already in advanced talks with Madrid, who were also willing to pay extra in case Real Madrid achieved certain goals and targets, Karim’s signature was procured successfully by Real Madrid.
Sir Alex revealed to the press that United had indeed tried to sign the Frenchman. His statement read;
We tried for Benzema because, at 21, I felt there would be an improvement there”. “He is tough, with a good physique and goal-scoring record, so it was worth going a wee bit extra for him because of his age. But when it went to 42m euros, it was beyond his value. We went to 35m and I think that was fair.
A Ruud Begining
Unlike Karim’s peers of the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano) Karim’s first season at Real Madrid did not go as he would have liked. Karim struggled to adapt to La Liga conditions. With his inability to speak Spanish, Karim found himself disjointed with his teammates and failed to effectively communicate on the pitch. Club Icon and fellow Frenchman, Zinedine Zidane came to his defence saying, “Everyone needs to be calm. Even I was criticised in my first 2 months here. Karim is a talented boy, he needs time.”
Karim made his La Liga debut against Deportivo La Coruña. In the following month, with an assist provided by Van Nistelrooy, Karim found the back of the net for the first time in La Liga against Xerez. Karim continued his first season with more hit and miss displays for the Real.
The Frenchman struggled for playing time, with the then coach of Real Madrid, Manuel Pellegrini preferring the more prolific Gonzalo Higuain who ended the season scoring 27 league goals surpassing Swede striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema (by almost 20 goals) being second only to Leo Messi.
Karim Benzema ended his miserable season with 8 La Liga goals in 27 appearances. Real Madrid would also end up having a dreadful season as ‘The Galacticos’ were once again eliminated in the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League and finished second in La Liga. That was not all, as Real Madrid experienced quite possibly one of their most embarrassing moments in history when the Spanish giants were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by third-tier Segunda Division B side Alcorcón (4-1 in aggregate).
Enter The Special One
With Real Madrid churning out 250 million Euros and still finding themselves trophyless, a change in the Gaffer was inevitable. Manuel Pellegrini’s contract was terminated and the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’, Jose Mourinho, was handed the keys to drive Madrid atop its competitors.
Karim drew criticism from Jose from the very beginning. Jose was alleged to have scolded Karim like a school-boy in training with his teammates around. Jose blasted Karim saying;
If it was just for you, I would make training at midday because you arrive at 10 o'clock half asleep and then by 11 you are already sleeping again.
Jose was not done with Karim as he roasted Karim at press conferences saying;
This is a disgrace. He's not even a cat. He's a rabbit!
In another occasion, Jose said;
The Training cannot start until 10 o’clock as Karim is never on time. Karim is talented, but that is not enough. Madrid need a striker who is sparky and not one who is listless.
Like Pellegrini, Jose too preferred Higuain ahead of Karim. The Frenchman had to be content being a substitute. However, due to a back injury to Higuain in November, Karim found himself in the starting XI. Karim found his goalscoring boots as he found the back of the net against Ajax, Mallorca and Sevilla. Additionally, he scored two hat-tricks against Levante and Auxerre.
Karim earned the praise of Jose Mourinho, who said to the press;
Karim is going well, he has changed, he is happy, he’s pleased with himself". If Karim continues to deliver good returns like that, psychologically, we will support him and thank the player and speak well of him at press conferences.
Karim ended the 2010-11 season with Real Madrid winning the Copa del Rey. He contributed with 26 goals in the campaign, second only to Cristiano Ronaldo
Weight Loss and Starting Lead Striker
Most of the Frenchman’s criticisms by fans and media were leveled at Karim’s body structure. In the summer of 2011, Karim underwent treatment to lose weight. He reported to Real Madrid training 18 lbs. lighter than he previously was. With some impressive displays in the pre-season, Jose made up his mind on Karim leading Los Blancos from centre forward.
Karim flourished and continued with his form of his previous season. Karim did tremendously well against Real Madrid’s eternal rivals Football Club Barcelona, as he found the back of the net in El Clasico on more than one occasion. Karim assisted Ozil in the first leg of the Supercopa de Espana and found himself in the score-sheet in the second leg against Barcelona. In December 2011, he would find himself in the scoresheet again against Barcelona, when he scored in just 21 seconds from kickoff. That goal till date is the fastest goal scored in the history of El Clásico.
His quality displays won him the French Football of the Year for his exploits in the year, 2011. The Spanish media which compared him to compatriot Nicolas Anelka for his poor showing in the Spanish Capital in the first season, praised him for his improved performance. Karim was instrumental for Real Madrid in winning La Liga that season, as he scored 21 goals in 34 league appearances.
Struggles and Trophyless
In Jose’s third season as Real Madrid manager, both of the Portuguese’s gunmen were once again battling out for the starting centre forward position for the Whites. Much was expected from Karim Benzema after his superb showing of the previous season. However, both Karim and Higuain struggled in the final third to make use of the goalscoring opportunities supplied by a team that could boast of goal creating talents such as Cristiano, Kaka, Ozil, Di Maria, Modric, and Xabi.
With Real Madrid losing 4 matches and drawing 3 in the first half of the season, La Liga was already over. The Special One couldn’t make up his mind as to who would be his main striker as he constantly rotated the starting striker position. The Frenchman had a forgettable season, finding the back of the net only 11 times in 30 league appearances.
Real Madrid’s form improved slightly in the second half of the season, losing just 1 match and drawing 3. But, that was not enough as Real Madrid finished second in La Liga (15 points behind Barcelona). As the season came to an end, Real Madrid lost to Dortmund in the Champions League Semi-Finals and were second-bested by Atlético Madrid in the Copa Del Rey Final.
Carletto In; Special One Out
With the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ falling out publicly with stalwarts like Casillas, Ramos, Pepe, and Ronaldo, and Real Madrid’s poor showing in all competitions, the Portuguese’s time was all but over in the Spanish Capital.
With Carlo Ancelotti taking over the reigns at Real Madrid, the Italian was handed the responsibility of uniting a divided dressing room and bringing European glory back to the Spanish Capital, something that his predecessor Jose Mourinho came close to but couldn’t get the job done in 3 years of his time here.
With Carletto failing to convince Higuain to stay, Carletto had Karim as his lone proper striker and youth academy graduate Morata as his backup. Along with the Argentine, Kaka too departed that season due to lack of playing time and with the arrival of Gareth Bale, that only seemed fitting.
Karim Benzema contributed in Real Madrid’s campaign with a total of 24 goals in all competitions. His most noteworthy goals were; a magnificent goal from the penalty arc against Almeria, a lone goal in Madrid’s 1-0 win over Bayern Munich in the 1st leg of the Semi-Final and a brace against Barcelona, which Madrid lost 3-4 eventually. With Real Madrid finally winning the Champions League after a wait of 12 long years and also the Copa del Rey, Karim was finally a Champions League winner.
A Tale of Two Halves
Real Madrid had just won a double and were going in high in their next season (2014-15). Real Madrid picked up where they left off in the previous season. The campaign started with the Whites winning the UEFA Super Cup. Karim gladly accepted a 5-year contract extension which would tie him to Real Madrid until 2019.
In the first half of the season, Real Madrid had a 22 match winning streak, in which Karim Benzema racked up 14 goals.
In the second half of the season, due to fatigue and the piling up of injuries, most notably of Luka Modric, Real Madrid started to falter. With a draw against Villarreal and a shock loss to Athletic Bilbao, The Whites had lost their lead. Real Madrid transformed into chasers from leaders. This was enough for Barcelona to capitalise and win La Liga. In the Champions League, Real Madrid were shown the door by Juventus in the semifinals and were eliminated in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey by Atlético Madrid.
Carletto Out; Benitez/Zidane In;
With the 2014-15 season being trophyless, Ancelotti's job was under scrutiny. Several Real Madrid players which included Ronaldo and Ramos, backed Carlo Ancelotti publicly on social media. However, the board and President Perez were indifferent to the support shown as Ancelotti was let go and Rafa Benitez was brought in.
Karim had the backing of the new manager from the very beginning. Speaking to the press, Rafa said;
Benzema is a great player and one of my ideas this year is that he will surpass 20-25 goals. I have placed a lot of trust in him and Benzema has sufficient resources to operate in all types of attack with any attacker.
Karim would go on to pay back the trust Benitez had in him by scoring 18 goals during Rafa’s time as manager and 12 more under Zidane, taking his total to 30. One of his strikes was an equalizer against Barcelona, with the Frenchman scoring an acrobatic goal from Kroos’ deflected cross.
The season ended with Real Madrid yet again missing out on La Liga to Barcelona; finishing with 90 points to Barcelona’s 91. Real Madrid were disqualified in the Copa del Rey for fielding Cherysev who was not eligible to play in the competition due to him picking up 3 Yellow cards in the previous season. The season that seemed to be a disaster was not one, as Real Madrid conquered Europe for the 11th time. It was Karim’s second Champions League Title.
Love-Hate Relationship with Madridistas
Real Madrid are a club with standards that are different from other clubs. Standards which are almost humanly impossible to match at times. One would think that the manager who ended the European Cup drought of 12 years, would be provided with another season to rectify his mistakes. But, not in Madrid. Not even the public support of the most important player of the present Real Madrid side, Cristiano Ronaldo, was enough to ‘save’ Carlo from being sacked just a year and a day after winning La Decima.
Let us take a look at the team in London, which goes by the name ‘Arsenal FC’. Managing this team from the year 1996 is Arsene Wenger who has 0 Champions League Titles and 0 Premier League Titles (since 2003). It is the year 2017 and Wenger is still the manager of Arsenal, with rival club fans celebrating with the hope that as long as Wenger is the manager, Arsenal will never win the League or the European Cup.
Now, I don’t recommend Real Madrid take a similar approach as Arsenal, but Real Madrid’s impatience and intolerance can be reflected onto the football world by their fans themselves. Every player who has stepped foot in the Santiago Bernabeu has experienced jeers and whistles in their time here. The great Zidane was whistled at and Cristiano too is still being whistled at whenever he is unable to match the impossible standards of Real Madrid.
Karim Benzema is the new scapegoat after the departure of Casillas. With Madridistas constantly whistling at him when he isn’t his best, these ‘arm-chair’ managers fail to understand that Karim is not someone who will score 50 goals a season himself. He is someone who will score half of it and help his teammates score the other half.
Karim joined Madrid 8 seasons ago, but the Frenchman has been criticized in every season at the Bernabeu. Despite having a good relationship with his former managers Mourinho and Ancelotti and current manager, Zidane, Karim continues to be criticized by the Spanish press and the fans, labelled as fat, lazy and clueless. There have been several matches in which the BBC have struggled to put the ball in the net. But, Karim is always the one to receive the step-daughterly treatment.
Admittedly Karim’s display in his first season with Los Blancos was poor. But, revamping his life by moving all the way from Lyon to Madrid at the tender age of 21 wouldn’t be easy for anyone. Karim couldn’t speak Spanish and learning a foreign language is not child’s play. It takes time. Furthermore, at 21 Karim was still an inexperienced player who was only starting to show glimpses of greatness. He needed time to adapt to his new life, which was nothing abnormal.
Karim Benzema could have been a failure at Real Madrid. But, he worked hard to fix his weaknesses and with help from compatriot Zinedine Zidane and the ‘Special One’ he was able to turn his fortunes. Jose Mourinho with his ‘tough-love’ helped Karim truly achieve his true potential. With Jose belittling Karim in front of his teammates and in the press, the Frenchman was humiliated and embarrassed beyond all limits. This pushed Karim to push himself out of his comfort zone and help Real Madrid in their journey for greatness.
Thankfully for Karim Benzema, his former coaches and his present coach do not share the same opinion of that of ‘arm-chair’ managers. All of his coaches acknowledge that the Frenchman is nothing short of world class and is destined to do great things for Real Madrid.
Karim Benzema is a lethal finisher of the game, a provider, agile and sturdy, effective with his back to the goal and effective in playing on the shoulder of the last defender. Able to drag defenders along with him, thereby producing opportunities for his teammates to put the ball in the net. The Frenchman also possesses the ability of excellent link-up play. Something that has been a treat to watch, for Madridistas and football fans across the world. Owing to his excellent link-up play, Karim Benzema has often been responsible for the goals scored by his peers in the BBC as well as for the rest of his teammates.
Perhaps the most amazing ability the Frenchman possesses is that he is selfless in front of goal. While normal players get a rush of blood to the head to score, the extraordinary Karim Benzema calmly produces a goal scoring opportunity for his teammates to score when the opposition is least expecting it. For someone who is not overly concerned with goals, Karim has scored more than 20 goals in all competitions for the last 5 seasons.
Karim Benzema is not the best number 9 in the world. With Legends like Di Stefano, Ronaldo Lima and Morientes donning the number 9 jersey of Real Madrid, the Frenchman might not even be the best number 9 in the history of Real Madrid. But, from what we have seen so far, he doesn’t need to be. Keeping in mind his sublime decision-making ability, Karim Benzema is more than a number 9, he is a 9.5
Karim does not crave the spotlight. Karim is not obsessed with being the top goalscorer of his team. The Frenchman is a very good example of someone, who is a team player and is ready to sacrifice himself for his team to prosper.
I will admit, I am someone who has cursed Karim for missing sitters and has been awestruck with him in the same match. I imagine most Real Madrid fans have had this experience.
Ruben Jimenez of Marca, describes Karim Benzema the best when he says;
The Frenchman is a bohemian, a poet whose languid style is an art. Karim is a forward who dreams of being a playmaker, offering the best of both worlds.