Real baller and Ballon d’Or winner Benzema remains perfect striker and better than ever at 34

John Nicholson
Karim Benzema celebrates scoring for Real Madrid.

Johnny Nic is no fan of Karim Benzema’s off-the-field character but on it, the Real Madrid and France centre-forward is as deadly as strikers come. He deserves that Ballon d’Or.

 

Who’s this then?
Karim Mostafa Benzema is the 6ft 1in, 34-year-old French striker for Real Madrid who won the Ballon d’Or this week. He scored 44 goals in 46 games for Real Madrid during the 2021/22 season, winning his fourth La Liga title and fifth Champions League trophy.

Born in Lyon, he was a prolific goalscorer at youth level. His career began at Lyon B before moving up to the first team in 2004 under Paul Le Guen. He was in and out of the team for the first three years but hit his stride in 2007/08, playing 52 games and scoring 31 times. He was top scorer in the league, won his fourth consecutive league title and helped Lyon to a league and cup double.

The 2007/08 season was when he came to everyone in Europe’s attention. He was named the Ligue Un Player of the Year and short-listed for the Ballon d’Or for the first time.

The following campaign was his last at Lyon, scoring 23 in 47. In 2009 he transferred to Real Madrid who turned up and hosed 35 million euros into the Lyon bank account. It was a lot of money back then. He was just 21 at the time.

However, it was a difficult start for him at his new club. He scored just nine in 33 appearances in the first season and was in and out of the team, his form inconsistent. It didn’t help that CR7 had arrived too and hit the ground running with 33 goals in 35 games. He would go on to score 450 times in 438 goals, a number that would make any other striker look bad.

The following year, Jose Mourinho arrived, didn’t fancy him much and publicly criticised him, thinking he was sluggish and overweight and didn’t work hard enough. Even so he still scored 26 in 48 appearances and only twice in the next 12 seasons would he fail to register at least 20 strikes.

In 2011 he underwent something of a physical transformation, shedding weight and building muscle. It made him a far more powerful player and he helped the club win La Liga, scoring 32 times. However, until 2018, when Ronaldo left, he was always very much in his shadow, as the Portuguese racked up ever more preposterous scoring records.

But Benzema plugged away, making 40 or 50 appearances every season, increasingly doing a lot of Ronaldo’s work and making space for him to score. This was especially the case in 2017/18 when he only got 12 goals in 47 games but the following year, with Ronaldo gone, he scored 30. The Ronaldo shackles were at last off.

He’s now scored 431 goals in 860 games and this year, despite being 34, seems to have hit the best form of his career.

He made his international debut in 2007 but in 2015, he was left out by Didier Deschamps and so began a five-year absence from France’s team with a good degree of mutual loathing on each side. However in 2021 he returned to score nine times in 13 games helping France to win the Nations League.

Along the way, there was the no small matter of his arrest for having sex with a 16-year-old prostitute which went to court but was thrown out for lack of evidence that he and his co-defendants knew she was 16. And if that wasn’t enough, in November 2021, he was found guilty of conspiring to blackmail Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape, for which he got a one-year suspended sentence and a €75,000 fine. So I think we can say that he is no angel, and that is to understate it radically.

 

Why the love?
He can play anywhere across the front, out wide or as a No.10 and that flexibility has kept him in many different line-ups. Throughout those years playing in the same side as CR7, he worked so hard, running the channels and occupying defenders to make room for his fellow striker to score and frequently hog all the glory.

The fact for all but two of those seasons he still netted over 20 goals is a testament to his ability. Had he been a main striker throughout, he would definitely be one of football’s all-time highest goalscorers.

Even at 34 he shows no lack of hunger. The third goal of his Champions League quarter-final hat-trick against Chelsea, though a massive cock-up by Edouard Mendy, was created by Benzema’s urgency to close the ball down and capitalise on the mistake. A less motivated player would’ve been back on his heels. He works super hard. It was the same in the previous round against PSG, shutting down the keeper, forcing him into an error for his first goal which he scored by hitting it first time as it came across him – a great skill in itself.

His other two goals against Chelsea, both headers, illustrated his stellar talent brilliantly. The first, a bullet header, getting on the end of a superb Luka Modric cross was classic centre-forward play. The second, a deft cushioned header into the corner was a combination of athleticism and judgement, knowing just how to twist his body to direct it into the corner away from the keeper but keep the right amount of pace on the ball.

He’s always been an intelligent player, on the pitch at least, and has always been someone who knew where to place himself and how to get himself there. Using space is not one of the glamorous roles in football, but he does it so well to either allow a co-striker to position themselves for a hit, or just working himself into dangerous positions.

He’s great on the deck, too, with tremendous close control, rarely taking more than a single touch before a strike on goal. If you watch his reels, the amount of times he either hits it first time or takes one touch to get into position to score is remarkable. This gives him a split second to operate in, ahead of the defence, and that’s all he needs.

More than that, he’s got dancer’s feet. If you need a thunderthwacker he can put his instep through it and give you a netbuster. He loves a volley and a half-volley. But he can side-foot a ball with accuracy or use the outside of his foot to devastating effect. His third goal against PSG in March was the perfect illustration of that. Running onto the ball, he caressed it nonchalantly into the goal.

Although notionally right footed – and he’s certainly scored the majority of his goals with his right foot – he’s buried plenty with his left too, so much so that watching him play, you can’t tell which is his favoured foot really. This has long been a stone in my shoe. It isn’t by accident that one of the best strikers in the world is so good with both feet; why aren’t more players as ambidextrous? It is surely a matter of training and practice.

Benzema is one of those players who seems to be two players in one body. He’s got all the skill of a playmaker, light on his feet, a dribbler and trickster who is full of vision and creativity but all the determination and power of an old-school centre-forward.

Pretty much the perfect package.

 

Four great moments
Three v PSG. Brilliant…

Three versus Chelsea. Brilliant. Again…

Nations League Goal Of The Tournament…

Look at his Lyon goals. Stunning stuff…

 

Future days
If you were to watch Benzema this year, no way would you think he is 34. There is no decline in his abilities, quite the opposite if anything. His experience has made him wiser and more effective. He hasn’t had any long-term serious injuries in his career either, so there seems no reason to assume that he hasn’t got two or three years at the top left yet and then maybe a swansong back at Lyon to wind things up.

His off-field ‘activities’ have definitely put a big cramp in his image. You can’t be blackmailing people with a sex tape and expect people to think you’re a great guy. And indeed, that whole affair is bizarre and not a little weird. None of those involved needed money, after all. But football traditionally doesn’t care about anything that happens away from the pitch, as much as it really should and it has never affected his gainful employment.

But there’s no denying his football prowess, at 34 he is still one of the finest strikers in Europe right now. Still a man who strikes fear into the opposition. And a Ballon d’Or winner to boot. He will hope for even more with France in Qatar this winter.

READ MORE: Thirty Ballon d’Or facts you *actually* didn’t know, including some Paul Scholes madness