Real Madrid: Benzema is Karim of the crop after renaissance
After finding himself a regular target for his own fans, Karim Benzema is now Real Madrid's talisman in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era.
February 2018, Gareth Bale tore up Real Madrid's left flank and played an inch-perfect cross into the centre for Karim Benzema to further embarrass Real Sociedad and surely wrap up a 6-2 mauling at the Santiago Bernabéu.
But Benzema remarkably sliced his first-time effort over the crossbar from about seven yards when it appeared impossible to miss – Madrid's fans held up their infamous reputation and rained a torrent of jeers down on the much-maligned Frenchman.
It had become par for the course with Benzema, who was relentlessly whistled by his own supporters through the 2017-18 campaign. But this time Cristiano Ronaldo took a stand, wagging his finger disapprovingly at those responsible before seeming to sarcastically applaud the fans behind 'Gol Sur'.
Benzema's relationship with Los Blancos fans had already been strained for a long time, with criticism morphing into boos, jeers and whistles in 2013, while the striker spoke publicly of his confusion around the situation in 2017.
"The hardest part is when the criticism comes from your own fans. They are normally there to boost you," he said to Canal Plus, revealing his bafflement.
Benz on the brink
The flak reached its zenith during the 2017-18 season.
Benzema scored just five times in 32 LaLiga matches, converting 7.94 per cent of his chances and averaging a goal every 431.2 minutes. Though there was the caveat of a solid haul of 10 assists, it was an extremely challenging year for the forward.
Benzema could hardly suggest it was a momentary blip either, as 11 goals from 29 matches the previous season was similarly underwhelming.
Such form looked set to cost Benzema dear, as he appeared destined to leave in 2018. That horror miss against La Real was followed by strong transfer rumours a couple of weeks later, with the Chinese Super League or a return to France apparently beckoning.
What goal problem?
Coach Zinedine Zidane never passed up the chance to defend Benzema during those dark days, and one has to assume the striker would have left several years ago were the former 'Galáctico' not fighting his corner.
Quite simply, Zidane 'gets' Benzema.
"I don't agree with the criticism. What interests me is not just his goals. I like what Karim does for the team, he's one of the best in this regard, and in the team game - I value that a lot. I'm going to defend Benzema to death," Zidane said ahead of the 2017 Club World Cup final.
After all, during those two onerous campaigns, Benzema recorded 18 assists across all competitions – add that figure to his 31 goals, then he had 49 goal involvements in 95 matches.
"You had a rocket [Bale] and a goalscorer [Ronaldo], and then there was me, the piece that made it all work," Benzema explained to RMC earlier this month, seemingly a too-nuanced point for Madrid's band of rowdy revilers.
"Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent"
The coach and player relationship is by no means one-way here, either. Benzema's regard for Zidane is well-known and surely a major contributor for the coach's success and the striker's renaissance.
"I have already said it before, but Zidane is like a godfather to me," Benzema commented three years ago.
While's Benzema's resurgence began during the final two months of Santiago Solari's ill-fated reign, there's little doubt Zidane's faith and understanding of the forward ensured he remained influential even after the former Ballon d'Or winner briefly called it quits last year.
Only Sergio Ramos (1,200 minutes) played with greater regularity than Benzema (1,092 minutes) under Julen Lopetegui, while he featured for 2,424 minutes for Solari, 233 more than anyone else. Whether he'd have remained if Ronaldo stayed is another matter, however.
Karim of the crop
There's no greater indication of Benzema's resurgence than the fact only Lionel Messi has scored more LaLiga goals than him in 2019 – the Barcelona star is on 21, the Lyon academy product has 20.
The most recent of those was particularly well timed, as Benzema got the winner in Sunday's 1-0 victory at Sevilla – who were unbeaten and had designs on going top of LaLiga – with a smart header after a clever bit of movement.
Previous results had put Zidane under pressure – with the ever-present spectre of José Mourinho lurking, waiting for an invitation to return – but Benzema was there to spare his friend.
As such, Benzema heads into Saturday's derby against Atlético Madrid with five goals – his total for 2017-18 – in as many LaLiga outings this term.
In the post-Ronaldo era, Benzema has stepped up to become Madrid's talisman. The only jeers he attracts now are those from fearful fans of Los Blancos' opposition.
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