Real Madrid’s problems have been well-documented this season, with the reigning champions currently languishing 14 points behind leaders Barcelona in fourth place. In normal circumstances, their famously demanding fans would be calling for the manager’s head, and there have been faint smatterings of dissent towards Zinedine Zidane.
These weak rumblings will no doubt become louder should their poor run of form continue, or if they were to be eliminated from the Champions League. But for now, the Frenchman has enough credit in the bank from his phenomenal success in his first two seasons in charge, coupled with his status as a legendary ex-Real Madrid player.
In their current slump, the fans need someone to blame, and the focus of their ire has turned towards their misfiring striker Karim Benzema. In 12 appearances in La Liga this season, the Frenchman has only managed a measly return of just two goals from 26 shots.
There have been occasions where the ball just looks like it won’t go in for Benzema, and he has been unlucky not to score on a number of occasions. But unlucky or not, this lack of goals has left him seemingly devoid of confidence. That has hardly been helped by the jeers and whistles he has been subjected to by his own fans.
Publicly, Zidane has vocally – and sometimes angrily – defended Benzema, including this week when a journalist suggested Benzema may have missed an open training session to avoid more abuse from the fans (in fact it was because he has picked up a hip injury that will sideline him for three weeks).
Privately, though, he will be worried about his lack of form. If Real Madrid were getting results, they could afford to accommodate a struggling striker. Zidane’s persistence in picking Benzema despite his travails has led some fans to suggest that Zidane favours Benzema because of their shared French-Algerian heritage.
In reality, it is more likely that Zidane is simply persisting with him because of a lack of viable alternatives, in the hope that he’s only a couple of goals away from regaining his confidence. Had Gareth Bale been available earlier in the season, and if Zidane had someone other than Borja Mayoral to call upon as back-up, it is likely he would have taken Benzema out of the firing line by now. As it happens, Benzema will now have around three weeks of respite from his travails as he recovers from injury.
This could be a blessing in disguise for both player and club, in that it forces Zidane to try something different. A spell out of the spotlight will also surely do Benzema some good. If Real Madrid continue to struggle in his absence, then the fans could realise that perhaps it was unfair to lay the blame entirely at his door.
But as much faith as Zidane has in Benzema rediscovering his goalscoring touch, there can be no denying that Real Madrid need another striking option. Zidane has insisted in public that he won’t ask for a striker in the January window. This may be a tactic to avoid putting extra pressure on Benzema, but in truth they would struggle to land a target of the required standard mid-season anyway.
With Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo both now the wrong side of 30, and the regularity with which Bale picks up injuries, Real simply don’t have enough options up front for a club of such magnitude.
Vinicius Junior will arrive in the summer, but with such tender years can’t be expected to make an immediate impact. Harry Kane, Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala are the targets that have been suggested by the Spanish press. Club president Florentino Pérez will surely need to break the bank for one of those three, regardless of whether Zidane wants them or not.
Benzema deserves a great deal more respect from the fans for his eight years of service. He has averaged a goal every other game over that period, but it looks more and more like his time in the Spanish capital has run its course.
Barring any late season surge into form, it’s unlikely he will win the fans over, and Real Madrid’s front line is in urgent need of renovation. If Benzema and Real Madrid stay in their current funk, he will surely be sacrificed. While Zidane and Ronaldo still have credit in the bank, Benzema is deep into his overdraft. Letters from the bank are piling up on the doormat.