At this moment, Benzema inhabits the game’s pinnacle. He has just propelled Real Madrid to another La Liga crown; he has single-handedly steered them to the Champions League final.
hree Espanyol defenders converged, like a band of policemen shadowing a slippery pickpocket, onto Karim Benzema, his shaved crown glistening under the lights, his imposing frame in Real Madrid’s turquoise green away shirt shining in the undulating wave of attention.
Benzema slipped out, then slipped in, veered closer to the nearest, unsuspecting defender, cushioned the lobbed pass with his right thigh, stuttered and stumbled as he chased the rebound, slunk his right shoulder a tad, as if shrugging a housefly off, before he twisted the ball with the back of his right heel through the agape legs of the defender, Eduardo, towards the path of an onrushing, untracked Casemiro, who slammed the ball past the goalkeeper.
Such undefinable moments — a no-look, back-heeled, nut-megged assist — define the genius, the grandeur and mastery of Benzema, who in current form is arguably the best centre forward in the world. So feels Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, before he corrects himself. “Calling him a forward feels like it stops short to me. He’s a very complete player.”
The Frenchman’s case is too compelling to refute the manager’s claim. At this moment, Benzema inhabits the game’s pinnacle. He has just propelled Real Madrid to another La Liga crown; he has single-handedly steered them to the Champions League final. He is the second highest goal-scorer (323) for his storied club and its highest assist-maker (159). No forward has scored, across the top five leagues, as many goals as Benzema has this season. With just the Champions league final to ring in the closure, he has reeled out 44 goals in 44 games. Not just goals, but 14 assists too, and beyond the mortal stats and facts, he has conjured magic and moments, stirred joy and amazement, tearing away from the chasing pack, to breathe a rarefied air of his own.
Some of those goals have been season-defining — the hat-tricks against PSG and Chelsea, the treble against Manchester City, that Panenka penalty against City, and that velvet-wrapped killer-pass for the Rodrygo goal, Benzema has been Madrid’s protagonist this season. He was the one-man slayer of City in Madrid — across 104 minutes, he maintained a pass accuracy of 90 per cent, retrieved the ball six times, won a penalty, scored a goal and racked up an assist.
For much of his career in Spain, he has been the provider, the facilitator, for Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. He uncomplainingly dispensed his duties — attestation of his versatility and adaptability too — and once the glitterati began to either depart or fade, Benzema rose to stake his claim in the pantheon of Madrid greats. This year, he has been their creator, destroyer and season-sustainer. A surgeon with a violin.
Or as his former manager Zinedine Zidane described poetically, “hostia”, literally meaning the communion water, but here used to describe a divine talent. “For people who like to watch football, Karim is a gift of God,” the legendary Frenchman, rarely prone to hyperbole, observed.
Benzema’s own explanation of his genius is simple, yet cryptic: “Sometimes things come from within me. It’s how I see football.”
At the top of his game
This season, he has operated at a higher than mortal, near immortal, level of genius. He has broken out of positional nomenclature. He is No.10 as well as No.9; not 9.5, not 9, not 10, not a bit-part, but two men at one time; the 10 and 9, the centre forward, playmaker and even the striker. “I would define him as a total footballer,” Zidane observed.
Watch him up close and it is amazing how many moves don’t just end with him but start with him, too. Often it begins with a silken long pass, and before one realises, Benzema has drifted into an unmanned zone – he has a preternatural vision to find that without scanning or surveying – to receive the ball. Anything could happen from there; he could thread the pass through the most threadbare of gaps, split it through the most congested of human barricades, pierce through the most impenetrable of defences, slip it from the most delicate of angles, find the most improbable of colleague, or as he often does, slam it the past the flailing palms of the goalkeeper. The last, killer touch could be anything, a poke of his toes, a glance of his head, the instep, the out-step, the lace, the back of his heel, the side of his boot.