Gary Lineker was discourteous in his appraisal of Karim Benzema, when he suggested on Twitter that selling Álvaro Morata to Chelsea while retaining the Frenchman was madness, or close enough. On Saturday, Zinedine Zidane came out in defence of his striker in an emphatic tone that is rare from the Real Madrid manager. Zidane stated that Benzema is the best in the world (in his position, it is to be understood; I don’t think that he was including Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the equation) and that if Benzema doesn’t score 60 goals, he scores 30 and assists 60. There is a touch of exaggeration in that of course; the striker’s statistics are not quite as impressive as Zidane suggested. But it does go some way to explaining the vigour of Zidane’s defence and the level of offence caused by the criticism/taunting of a brilliant former striker like Lineker.
Benzema does not score the amount of goals that might be expected by a Real Madrid number nine. On that there is agreement. But he is a better player than others who score more frequently than he does, not just because of the elegance of his style but also his ability to find spaces or open up them up against tightly locked defences. Real Madrid often miss Benzema when he is not available, in the same way that his missed chances are often deplored, as was the case against Tottenham last Tuesday in the Champions League. And it has to be acknowledged that on top of everything else he does if he was scoring more goals, it is not meant as a slight on the forward, but quite the opposite.
Elías Israel expressed it very well on our back page the other day. For some observers, Benzema is a “nine-and-a-half,” which is how players who are half a number nine and half a number 10 are described in Argentina, those forwards who are like an attacking midfielder with the eye for a pass. For others, Lineker among them, Benzema is not a nine-and-a-half, but half a number nine. Zidane admires his striker, that is evident, to the extent that he has even overlooked certain periods when Benzema has not been at his ideal weight. And he is right to come out in his defence. But nobody can defend Benzema with the same conviction that the striker scoring goals can. Whether he likes it or not, that is always going to be the expectation on a number nine.