Karim Benzema, whose brace against Espanyol took him to 15 goals this term, looks like a different player. AS discusses why he's doing so well.
Karim Benzema is playing with a smile on his face, and that can only be good news for Real Madrid. This season, the striker seems like another player: he has shaken off the at times apathetic demeanour which, in the past, has led to a somewhat frosty relationship with the European champions' fans, and is adding both leadership and goals to the adept link-up play that has always been his hallmark. Finally, the Frenchman is the whole package.
Has stepped up in the wake of Cristiano's exit
It was expected that Gareth Bale would fill the gaping void left by Cristiano Ronaldo after the Portuguese's summer departure for Juventus, but in the end it is Benzema who has come to the fore as Madrid's attacking spearhead. He had been Cristiano's most effective partner in crime when they were playing up front together, but now that he no longer needs to focus on supplying the bullets to his superstar former colleague, he actually seems to be more at home in Madrid's forward line.
One of the first names on the teamsheet under Julen Lopetegui (who was among those to recommend his signing 10 years ago), Benzema has also enjoyed the absolute confidence of Santiago Solari since the Argentine took over in late October. "He always puts in very complete performances, and now the goals are coming too," purred Solari after the player's double at Espanyol last night. This time last year, Benzema had just five strikes to his name; at the same stage in 2018/19, he has 10 more and is Madrid's top scorer.
Forging emerging partnership with Vinicius
Vinicius' playing style fits perfectly with that of Benzema. A footballer who always looks to create one-on-ones and take on his man - something which Cristiano found a tougher and tougher ask - the Brazilian generates the kind of defensive chaos that the ex-Lyon man is so good at using his reading of the game to exploit. "It's very easy to play with him," says Vinicius. Benzema was quick to sense that the teenager had the potential to be a useful attacking ally. The pair started pre-season at the same time, and he quickly took the newcomer under his wing.
Benzema also benefits from the efforts of Lucas Vázquez, who helps him to press the opposition more effectively than Bale (who tends to float about with greater freedom). The Galician clearly enjoys playing alongside the 31-year-old, too: "Karim is the best number nine in the world," Vázquez said after Madrid's 4-2 win at the RCDE Stadium. Vázquez-Benzema-Vinicius is a front three that works: it did the business in the win over Sevilla and the Copa del Rey beating of Girona, and repeated the trick once more at Espanyol.
Is getting himself in more shooting positions
"I need to get myself in positions in the box more often," Benzema had said at the start of the season, and he is now proving as good as his word. He had four shots against Espanyol, as many as the rest of the team's forwards (Vázquez had two, and Vinicius and Bale took one each). Three days earlier, against Girona in the Copa, he had seven attempts - more than in any other game this season. "I'm a number nine with the spirit of a number 10," he reminded reporters after last night's triumph over Los Pericos, but that he is shooting more, and scoring more, is there for all to see. Indeed, his haul of 15 goals this season is just two shy of the 17 that Cristiano has so far racked up at Juventus.
A player showing unprecedented battling spirit
"The inspiration has always been there, but I've never seen Karim show this kind of commitment to his defensive duties," said former Madrid player and Spanish radio pundit Álvaro Benito during Los Blancos' clash with Espanyol. He has the air of a man who wants to take the responsibility, not only in pressing the opposition but also when Madrid are in possession. He is getting himself on the ball more, and doing more with it. He has upped his per-game tally of successful passes by six this term, from 22 in 2017/18 to 28 - and, having managed a whopping 43 against Girona (more than Luka Modric, who finished with 36), he then surpassed even that mark last night by completing a total of 54 - more than in any other LaLiga game since he arrived in Spain in 2009.
Has got himself in tip-top physical shape
It has not been uncommon for Benzema's weight to fluctuate during his time at the Bernabéu, but after shedding five kilos last term he came back for pre-season having clearly sweated blood to stay in great shape over the holidays. And he has reaped the rewards of the hard yards he put in over the summer months: he has stayed clear of the treatment table this season, and has displayed a general freshness and sharpness out on the pitch that was lacking in previous years. He has played the full 90 minutes in eight of Madrid's last 10 LaLiga matches, and was also involved throughout against Girona in the Copa. He has, just like the rest of a Madrid squad that is now leaner and fitter, also benefited hugely from the decision to bring Antonio Pintus back into the fold.