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Karim Benzema, the Most Certain of Things, Leads Real Madrid to Victory Over Chelsea

LONDON, UK — Luka Modric has seen pretty much all there is to see at this point. He has four Champions League championships to his name. He was a part of the World Cup final. He spent a decade with Real Madrid, where he was surrounded by some of his generation’s best players. He is one of his generation’s best players. He is unlikely to be quickly pleased or startled.

Modric witnessed something that did both a little more than 20 minutes into Real Madrid’s Champions League quarterfinal against Chelsea on Wednesday. He was admiring the flight of the cross he had just delivered from the edge of Chelsea’s penalty area. It was a neat, clipped number that swirled away from Edouard Mendy’s goal and toward his teammate Karim Benzema, and he would have been happy with it.

However, a keen eye like Modric’s would have noticed that the ball’s trajectory and the player’s position were not exactly in sync. The cross was a touch too far back, or Benzema was a little too far forward. It was only an inch or so off, but few players prize precision as much as Modric does; small things matter.

Even so, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Benzema was not without choices. The most obvious was to try to direct the ball low and to Mendy’s right. Or he might try to match the force of the header that had opened the scoring just a few minutes before, one that had flashed past Mendy before he had time to acknowledge it. Benzema might even be able to pull the ball down and play from there in a pinch.

What happened next was something Modric could not have predicted. Leaning somewhat backward, Benzema delicately, almost quietly, nodded the ball back across Mendy’s goal. It seemed to float in the air for an eternity, gliding toward the far post. As Mendy, Modric, and everyone else inside Stamford Bridge waited to see where it would fall, there was a moment of quiet.

Finally, it found a home inside the post. Modric appeared to be stuck as Benzema turned away, his smile big and his palms open, to sprint toward Real Madrid’s fans. He paused for a moment, maybe two, before leaping into the air, arms high, a disbelieving grin on his face. Karim Benzema can even surprise Luka Modric on rare occasions, it turns out.

Karim Benzema, the Most Certain of Things, Leads Real Madrid to Victory Over Chelsea (2)
Karim Benzema, the Most Certain of Things, Leads Real Madrid to Victory Over Chelsea


At the very least, he is not alone in this. The trajectory of Benzema’s career is sometimes misinterpreted. It’s not quite fair to portray him as a late bloomer, a flimsy talent who waited until the last few years of his career to fulfill a long-standing promise, to figure out how to maximize his abilities.

Benzema has always been obvious, lavishly, absurdly talented; after all, he was only 19 years old when Jean-Pierre Papin — himself no mean striker — declared that Benzema possessed the dynamism of (the Brazilian) Ronaldo, the imagination of Ronaldinho, the elegance of Thierry Henry, and the ruthlessness of David Trézéguet.

Benzema had gone close to signing for Barcelona and had finalized a move to Real Madrid by the time he was 21. He’d spend the first ten years of his career in Spain, scoring a goal every couple of games on average, the customary benchmark for elite strikers, and creating many more. Zinedine Zidane, his coach for much of that time, referred to him as “the finest” and a “complete footballer” at various times.

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Of course, he wasn’t the star of the show: he was playing only a few yards from one of the best strikers of all time, a forward who made scoring one goal in every two look quaint and old-fashioned, and actually a letdown when you thought about it.

That made Benzema extremely delighted. He readily gave up his own abilities and objectives to help his partner achieve his goals. In doing so, he assured that no player, probably more than him, suffered as much from the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s reinvention of his potential.

Since Ronaldo’s departure in 2018, Benzema has experienced golden autumn that can best be described as an optical illusion: it’s not that he shines any brighter than before, but that the blazing torch that for so long drowned out all other points of light has vanished. It is only now that Benzema is available in high quality.

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What has evolved is an uncanny resemblance to the player described by Papin all those years ago. Benzema has evolved into — and most likely has always been — a complete center forward, a living embodiment of a full attack, but even that undersells him. He is the player who brings this Real Madrid team together, despite its old and patchwork nature.

It’s easy to demonstrate this. Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid was thrashed by a resurgent Barcelona on home soil a few weeks ago while he was away. Real Madrid looked like what it was supposed to be that night, as it lost 4-0 and the Bernabeu booed and whistled its heroes. It looked like a team amid an awkward and uneasy transition from one era to the next, half comprising a team that had seen its day and a half comprising a side waiting for its chance.

On the flip side of that disappointment, Real Madrid has beaten Chelsea, the incumbent European champion, on its own territory, after overpowering an admittedly complicit Paris St. Germain and now Even more impressively, given the French team’s predilection for self-immolation. Benzema has not only scored all three goals on both occasions, but he has also served as Madrid’s head and heart, focal point, and cutting edge.

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He is nearly single-handedly responsible for Real Madrid’s sustained importance in Europe. So long as Benzema is present, Ancelotti will be sure of guiding his club to a second consecutive semifinal in the Spanish capital next week — though he will doubtless disagree with his Chelsea counterpart, Thomas Tuchel, who believes the tie is over. He’s the one who pulls it all together. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Maybe he’s always been the glue that holds everything together. It’s only that we’ve only recently become aware of it.

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