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A good-bye to the transcendent Benzema — one of the greatest players in Real Madrid history

On Benzema’s ascendency since 2018, an emotional good-bye, and the unique stature of one of the club’s apex superstars

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

DURING KARIM BENZEMA’S TRANSCENSION amid the herculean 2021 - 2022 season where the Frenchman churned out the best campaign of his career, head coach Carlo Ancelotti was asked whether or not Real Madrid are “dependent” on the striker.

“Yes,” Ancelotti answered.

“There’s no problem saying we depend on Benzema,” he continued. “We can’t deny it. We depend on Benzema: that’s the way it is. It’s a reality – and a good thing. I’m happy to depend on a player like him.”

That’s the way it goes: Superstars are leaned on — it’s always been that way in football history. Last season, Benzema scored in every single Champions League knockout game with the exception of the first leg in Paris — but that’s because he couldn’t play that game due to injury. From the round-of-16 through to the semi-finals, Benzema scored 10 goals in the five games he played in.

Those 10 goals couldn’t be any bigger than they were. Not stat-padded, not against mid-table teams, and not in inconsequential matches without pressure. No, quite the opposite, they were the most vital, against the best teams, at the highest stakes, with the most pressure. One of them was a panenka penalty in the face of a hostile environment while the team was getting dominated — one match after he had missed two penalties in a league game and confidence could’ve been affected, but wasn’t. Another was a penalty that sent Real Madrid to the final. A hat-trick at Stamford Bridge, a hat-trick against PSG with his team all but eliminated, and a game-winner against Chelsea in extra-time. How many great strikers put up numbers in every game except for the ones where the season is on the line? Benzema rose, clutch — 15 goals in the Champions League (two shy of Cristiano Ronaldo’s record); 44 goals in 46 games; Champions League trophy, La Liga trophy, Pichichi, and a Balon D’or by the end of it.

It was one of the greatest seasons in Real Madrid history by an individual player, not just because of the numbers or the Balon D’or, but because of how much his team needed him, and how difficult the task was — the strength of opponent, the low-probability of winning at so many points during the run.

And his rise to the moment was gradual, and had built up from the very moment the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2018. When the club had banked on players taking a leap and contributing more after Ronaldo’s sale to Juventus, only Benzema — not Marco Asensio, not Gareth Bale — rose the call. And each year since then up until last year’s emphatic stamp, he got better, and better, and better.

And that’s a point sometimes fans and media overlook. Benzema himself got better. It was not as simple as ‘Cristiano was holding Benzema back’, or, ‘Benzema sacrificed his numbers for Cristiano’. There are traces of truth in those statements, but above all, Benzema wasn’t as good then as he was by 2022. Benzema could have had better goal-scoring numbers during the Cristiano era if his finishing was better, and in turn, Cristiano would’ve had more assists too.

“Karim is more complete than five years ago,” Ancelotti said last season. “He’s like wine, better all the time, with every year.

“He’s more of a leader, he feels more important and that makes the difference; he has more personality,”

The leadership and personality had been evident for some time. Benzema was not necessarily a raucous loud leader, but did often speak with his body language, mannerisms, and calm tactical directions to his teammates.

At Anfield on February 21st, I was sitting press row during Real Madrid’s win against Liverpool. When Liverpool went up 2 - 0, their fans had lost their minds — it was deafening. Off camera, Benzema serenely walked to the center circle, told everyone to calm down, said something to Vinicius and Modric, and on the game went. Five goals later, Real Madrid paralyzed Livepool and silenced Anfield.

There was also the famous incident at the Bernabeu on April 12th, where Benzema is seen giving tactical instructions to Vinicius, drawing an invisible visual on his hand, showing the Brazilian where to pass him the ball. Moments later, Vinicius cut inside from the left, looked up, played it to Benzema in the box, and the two connected on a vital goal to send the team to the Champions League semi-finals.

There are more, many more. Instances we know about, and instances we don’t — preserved for only the players’ memories.

“He always talks to me before games and helps us a lot, on and off the pitch,” Rodrygo said of Benzema last season. When a journalist asked Rodrygo what the best piece of advice he received from the Frenchman was, the Brazilian replied with a laugh: “To play the ball to him.. Every time I give him the ball, it works out.”

Benzema improved virtually every aspect of his game since 2018 — not just his finishing. Even the things we already knew he was great at, like link-up play and defensive effort, he continued to excel in. There were games in the past few years that he was dropping deep into Real Madrid’s half, winning the ball in midfield, getting the ball to the wing in transition, and sprinting into the box to be on the end of a chance. Last season he had 12 assists in La Liga — tied for most in his career alongside the 2011 - 2012 season. Last season he also had 82 passes into the penalty area in La Liga — by far the most of his career and the most in the league. It is not a stretch to say he is one of the greatest outside-of-the-box strikers in football history.

And that is another point in Benzema’s favour. When we think about his legacy, we’ll think not just about his goals or his heroic run in ‘21-22, but his unique profile as a versatile outside-of-the-box forward.

“People talk about Karim as a pure No 9, a 9 and a half, a 10; for me, he’s a bit of everything,” Zinedine Zidane once said. “I would define him as a total footballer.”

And so, as Karim Benzema’s Real Madrid chapter officially closed today, and the club released an emotional tribute, it was hard to fight back the tears, but there is lots of solace to be found in the fact that Benzema had a tremendous legacy, as well as a tremendous close to his legacy.

As I pointed out on Twitter on the weekend, Benzema was the last remaining member of the 2009 - 2010 squad. He has played both alongside Raul Gonzalez and Sergio Arribas. That kind of longevity at such a demanding club is extremely difficult. 14 years later, he leaves as the second-highest scorer in Real Madrid history and one of the greatest players in Champions League history. He leaves with a goal in his last game and a standing ovation from the fans. Most legends don’t leave in that manner. This was as celebratory as it gets.

“Today is a very difficult day for me and it’s an emotional day for all Madridistas,” Real Madrid president Florentino Perez said in today’s farewell ceremony. “Many memories are coming to mind. I’ve noticed a lot of sadness these past few days, not just among Real Madrid fans but among all football fans.

“To all those who feel sad, I would like to say that this is a moment to remember the enormous fortune we have had enjoying Benzema’s football during these 14 years, because we have seen incredible things.”

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