Karim Benzema (pictured) is the outstanding single presence in elite European club football. There are penalty kicks and then there are Statement Penalty Kicks. Even the best players approach this trial from 12 yards with a binary sense of dread. Relief or disaster: these are the only sensible outcomes. Except, of course, when there’s a third option, the penalty that becomes an act of stagecraft.
Who could forget Andrea Pirlo pulling the plug on Joe Hart in Kyiv in 2012 with the most impossibly light, fluffy, airy Panenka, a penalty kick that took Hart gently by the elbow and said, do sit down, the grown-ups are talking. Or David Luiz smashing the ball into the stanchion with Chelsea trailing in the 2012 Champions League final shootout, a moment of such fearless, ringlet-tossing abandon it changed the weather completely: actually, we’re coming after you.
Tuesday night brought another one. Karim Benzema really did need to score from the spot at the Etihad Stadium. Two goals down with eight minutes to play, Real Madrid were clinging on to this semi-final by the standards of normal, everyday football teams.
At which point Benzema produced — well, what exactly? An impudent dink. A regal loft. An imperial tickle. A moment to steal a little hope from your soul.
Madrid had been brittle in defence and slow in central midfield, with Toni Kroos creaking about the pitch like a fond old Victorian rocking horse.
Benzema’s dink told the world they still considered themselves to be winning this tie. Mainly because — read the badge — they’re called Real Madrid. But also because they have Benzema, 13 years into his career at a club that doesn’t generally do 13-year careers; and right now the outstanding single presence in elite European club football.
The talk now will be about the Ballon d’Or, because football tends towards individual glory. But also because it’s so obvious that Benzema should win it. He is on a run of 17 goals in 12 games. He has 46 in 48 for the season, 13 assists and another league title in the barrel, all the while reeling off outrageous displays of will and edge at the sharp end of things.
The Ballon d’Or is awarded in October. There isn’t time for anyone else to approach this level. If convicted attempted blackmail go-betweens are allowed to win the big awards — and before we clutch our pearls too closely this is a sport whose global body has anointed Vladimir Putin as a force for world peace — then it looks like a wrap.
But it is also far from the most interesting thing about Benzema, whose performance on Tuesday night captured so much about Real Madrid, and about Manchester City too.
Mainly it was just about Benzema. Micah Richards drew some flack last month for announcing during TV duties that Madrid’s No. 9, the top scorer in La Liga, centrepiece of a title-winning team might finally be approaching the levels of Harry Kane. It would be unfair to take this single remark out of context and portray Richards as the embodiment of a laughably solipsistic Anglo-centred sporting worldview. Although perhaps not that unfair. Benzema is 34. This has been going on for some time now.
Aged 17, he told a room full of senior internationals at Lyon to stop laughing at his initiation speech as he was there to take their jobs. Four years later, still at Lyon, he was being shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or. He is lining up his fifth Champions League medal on the back of 85 Champions League goals. Kane, who is also a brilliant footballer, has been playing in the Europa Conference League. It does take a genuine loss of scale to conclude this is any kind of contest at all right now.
Plus, you just need to watch Benzema play. The first thing that stands out is his movement. Nothing is wasted. Everything has a purpose. When he runs the hairs prickle on your arms, because he is telling you the game is about to change, that things are happening. The most notable part of his first goal against City was the casual finish, the ball tucked into the corner with the ease of a man crossing his legs on the sofa. The other part was the run to get there. There was no run. Benzema was already there, waiting for the game to catch up.
Overall he had 43 touches, two shots on target and a sense of overbearing presence. There is a lot of talk about the age of top strikers now, backed by stuff about diet and conditioning. Another big part of this is mentality. Elite football is a suffocating thing. It comes at you in an endless scroll of data, angles, equations.
It takes a certain maturity just to block and sift that information, to process the right parts. Age helps. Faced with this terrifying spotlight, this agony of options, Benzema addresses the ball like a man stroking the family pet. The only real surprise was that he didn’t score a hat-trick.
How many will he get in the Bernabéu? It is a key question in this tie. Benzema has 17 of Madrid’s past 28 goals.
This is a champion team in the process of coming apart, with a rebuild to be funded by the usual combination of hope, loans and stadium income. For now Madrid are in a glorious state of ripeness, like a majestically aged blue cheese.
Riyad Mahrez realises Real Madrid are every big bad from every slasher movie ever. Put. Them. Away. And then do it again. And so on.
At the head of this the man who was kept out of the team by Emmanuel Adebayor, who was seen by some in Madrid as an overweight underachiever, has found his final form as the keeper of that golden thread, embodiment of Madrid-ism, of the idea of victory as divine right.
This was the other thing Benzema’s performance spoke to. How, exactly, do you make a champion team? High-end process or high-end pragmatism? In many ways Benzema is the perfect argument for signing Erling Haaland (or Kane), and simply bolting on that same elite attacking edge.
Pep Guardiola has built his success on other principles, on obsessing over the ball not the man. On the other hand, Madrid’s individualists have won four finals during the decade Pep has spent falling just short. One thing is clear. Benzema at the Bernabéu already looks like the single most vital factor in deciding which of these teams get to play out another in Paris. — Guardian.