“I’m going to defend Benzema to death.”
As far as accolades go, earning the unequivocal faith of Zinedine Zidane as a footballer is right up there.
Zidane came out in support of Karim Benzema prior to the 2017 Club World Cup final, a month after Gary Lineker had inadvertently created a storm in Twitter’s teacup by suggesting the striker was “a tad overrated”, a relatively innocuous comment which saw the likes of Christian Vieri and Benzema himself fly in like Jordan Pickford on a night out in Sunderland.
Lineker’s tweet was hardly worthy of the furore it caused, but he did touch upon a slightly sore point when it comes to discussing Benzema. “A goal every other game in a team as strong as Real Madrid is nada especial,” wrote the former England captain.
It certainly is nada especial when performing with and against the supernatural goal-grabbing of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but nobody in world football can live up to such frightening standards of consistency – and some sections of the Spanish media were quick to point out Lineker’s own record of 0.38 goals per game at Barcelona.
But while Benzema’s qualities as a striker have always been more well-rounded than just poaching, he’s hardly doing badly at sticking the ball in the net. He is now into his 10th season at the Bernabeu and his hit 20+ goals in all but three of those campaigns.
Perhaps the Frenchman’s biggest flaw has been the fact his Real Madrid career has lacked A Moment in their biggest triumphs.
Whereas Critiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos have all produced talismanic performances in finals, Benzema has scored just once in Los Blancos’ four Champions League final victories, and even that was overshadowed by the fact it was gifted to him by some mindless goalkeeping by Loris Karius.
Benzema has been more of a facilitator to those successes, most notably with his sorcery to beat three defenders in the build-up to Isco’s crucial goal in the second-leg of the Champions League semi-final win against Atletico Madrid, which killed off all the momentum of a spirited fightback from their city rivals.
Now, with Ronaldo no longer at the Bernabeu, Benzema has once again quietly gone about his business to take up the mantle as the club’s most lethal goalscorer.
Real Madrid may have become embroiled in a soap opera of a season, but the forward has 24 goals and 10 assists to his name to date.
Against Huesca at the weekend, Benzema – having already been involved in Madrid’s first two goals – curled home a beautiful 89th-minute winner to spare Real’s blushes against La Liga’s bottom side and secure a 3-2 victory.
The goal also saw the 31-year-old set a unique record of scoring against every team he has faced in the competition – a stat neither Ronaldo nor Messi can lay claim to themselves.
With Zidane back in the dugout, Real Madrid are set to make big changes to their squad this summer.
Rumours constantly surround Bale, while the futures of Thibaut Courtois, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and Luka Modric have also been the subject of speculation.
One player likely to remain in the Spanish capital, however, is Benzema.
“Karim is a player at this club and I don’t believe that will change,” Zidane said in the wake of that win over Huesca.
An iconic figure at Real Madrid on the pitch, Zidane has always understood the importance of players of Benzema’s ilk at the club, famously lamenting the sale of Claude Makelele during the Galacticos era by saying: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
Benzema may ultimately lack the highlight reel of Ronaldo or Bale, but if he can survive over a decade as the engine of Real Madrid’s attack, his legacy will be just as impressive.