Last season for Real Madrid, he found the back of the net 24 times. In his last nine games for France, he has scored at least one goal on each occasion and now has four goals this World Cup alone. Who is the unnamed man? Karim Benzema of course.
The man once dubbed a ‘cat’ and not good enough to lead his forward line by Jose Mourinho is taking Brazil by storm and is generating at least as many column inches as any other star, Neymar aside of course.
Benzema is on fire. Pretty ironic really given he drove Real Madrid fans to despair at times last season and had it not been for Sergio Ramos, there would have been no La Decima, and a great deal more abuse heaped on Benzema.
The same Real Madrid fans are bemused at the world’s reaction to the forward – and they point out that they have been watching him miss four to score one week in, week out for the last few seasons now. The World Cup watchers have only seen the very best of Benzema and even then he has missed a couple of sitters – including a penalty.
Les Bleus fans are also pleasantly surprised at their number ten’s form – and have not enjoyed the easiest of relationships with the player in the past.
It was Benzema who claimed ‘when I score, I am called French, when I miss, I am called Arab’ in the eyes of the fans and given the forward is more sensitive than most, booing him is not the way to get anything at all out of Benzema.
This is his first World Cup and he has been told by coach Didier Deschamps in no uncertain terms that he is the main man – and that confidence in him has paid off in leaps and bounds.
Deschamps has just labelled Benzema as ‘world class’ and whilst you would find a greater majority of fans disagreeing with that comment than those clamouring to agree, there is no doubt that we are seeing the very best of Karim Benzema at the minute.
Domestically, Benzema has struggled in Madrid. He found the language difficult, Jose Mourinho preferred to hunt with a dog – Gonzalo Higuain – and he is constantly overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Gareth Bale and even on occasion, Jese.
Add to this his international struggles and relationship with fans at times, and Benzema has cut an isolated figure at times both domestically and internationally.
The worst point for his country came when he went a massive 1,222 minutes without scoring between June 2012 to October 2013. Benzema looked at his lowest ebb and few who watched the player week in week out thought he would even have the mentality and consistency to match his flashes of sheer ability.
The turning point for the forward seems to have come with the return of Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid, who has taken his compatriot under his wing and changed the fortunes – not to mention, vitally, the mentality of the forward.
Carlo Ancelotti credits Zidane with turning the fortunes of Benzema around and the player himself notes that Zidane became more than a coach, he became a mentor and a friend. The inclusion of Raphael Varane in the Real Madrid first team and the French national side has also helped over the last couple of years. Benzema needs friends around him, people to support him and essentially, boost his confidence.
After an upturn in his club fortunes, the time came for Benzema’s recall to the international stage with Olivier Giroud failing to take the opportunity handed to him by Deschamps.
The play-off game against the Ukraine – with France trailing from the first leg and their hopes of being in Brazil hanging by a very slim thread indeed -put Benzema firmly back on the radar, with the striker both scoring and setting a goal up in the 3-0 win and regaining the trust of his manager.
Deschamps calls Benzema ‘shy’ and says that he has been through ‘every emotion’ possible with the player in the last two years.
Those who know Benzema would not doubt it – and knew the opening game against Honduras would define the entire tournament for Benzema. He had to score. Build up that confidence and the tournament would be his. Fail to score, miss a couple of sitters and the doubts would once again creep in – along with a fair bit of abuse from the fans and French media.
Luckily for the forward, he scored twice and could have netted a hat-trick had it not been for the second of the three goals being chalked down to an own goal. That was all he needed. Benzema was trying things that a couple of years would have seemed out of the question and his head was held high.
The litmus test came with the missed penalty against Switzerland – which could have affected the player in a negative way -but instead proved just how strong he has now become mentally, with two more goals in that game pushing him out front in the race for the Golden Boot.
Benzema could well be having that ‘career defining World Cup’ that is oh so often spoken about – and in the absence of Franck Ribery, is more vital to France than ever. Deschamps might look back on that injury which at the time seemed to signal goodbye to their World Cup hopes and consider it the best thing that happened.
Can Benzema lead France to victory this summer? Let us know your thoughts below or tweet us @LaFootyettes.