Karim Benzema had just netted his third goal of a fruitful pre-season campaign for Real Madrid when Coach Jose Mourinho took the time to acknowledge the striker’s transformation.
It has taken Benzema the best part of 12 months to get on to Mourinho’s wavelength. Having made such substantial strides forward, it is now worth considering what role the forward will play in a competitive Real Madrid squad during the season ahead.
The rising stock of the former Lyon striker is a far cry from last summer when he was on the receiving end of harsh criticism from Mourinho. The then newly-arrived Coach was particularly frustrated with the player’s attitude on Madrid’s Alfredo di Stefano training ground, proclaiming to the Frenchman: “If we arranged things around you we would have to start training at midday because you are not awake when you turn up at 10 and you are still asleep at 11.”
With just nine goals in 33 games for los Blancos in 2009/10, the image was that of a lackadaisical striker too complacent to capitalise on the considerable talent at Lyon that had commanded a €35 million transfer fee the previous summer. It was no surprise therefore that Benzema started the season on the bench as back-up for the far more prolific Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine’s 53 goals in the previous two seasons left the French forward had little room for argument and following the closure of the transfer window, Mourinho admitted that he “had wanted another striker, Higuain and Benzema are not enough.”
Benzema showed signs of improving his work-rate for the team, but was still restricted to coming off the bench, and by the start of December he had netted just three goals. However, as Higuain suffered a slipped disc in his back at this time – ruling the Argentine out for four months of the season – it was Benzema who finally grasped the opportunity to shine. This began with hat-tricks against Auxerre and Levante in December, and Mourinho’s declaration that: “Benzema is doing better than ever. He is doing things he has never done before.”
The Coach was rewarded with a fine second half of the season from the attacker, who ended the campaign with 26 goals, his best total since his breakthrough year at Lyon in 2007-08. It was the type of form that even prompted Arsene Wenger to reportedly return to his long-term interest in the attacker this summer.
This time – and on the back of a pre-season where he was voted Madrid’s best player by users of AS.com – Mourinho was in no mood to entertain talk of a transfer, speaking of there being “no chance Benzema will leave,” as the Frenchman netted seven and assisted a further four goals across tours of the US, Europe and China.
However, for the youngster, the concern is that despite this form reportedly earning him a starting berth against Barcelona in the Supercopa de Espana, that facing the Catalans will bring back frustrating memories – not from failing to beat the opponents in the League and Champions League, but from the personal viewpoint of having not featured in three of the four Clasicos.
Despite finishing the season in devastating form, Benzema played no part in either leg of Champions League semi-final, or in the Copa del Rey against Pep Guardiola’s team. Benzema was the one purposefully sacrificed by Mourinho’s tactics that instead deployed Cristiano Ronaldo as a lone striker in front of a stacked midfield. This 4-1-4-1 system won the Copa del Rey and led to stalemate against the Catalans until Pepe’s sending off.
In facing Barca at the end of last season and preparing to do so again, at the forefront of Mourinho’s mind was and again will be the 5-0 humiliation suffered at the Camp Nou, with Benzema – then out of form – one of the prime candidates for criticism. Despite Benzema’s re-emergence into form from this game and carried through into pre-season 2011, there remains speculation that Mourinho could be tempted to return Pepe or introduce Raphael Varane into a defensive midfield position, and that the Frenchman will again find himself back on the bench.
While the forward does present defenders with a physical presence, he does not yet offer the back-to-goal expertise that Didier Drogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were able to offer Mourinho’s Chelsea and Inter teams. The loan signing of Emmanuel Adebayor in January also offered further evidence of the faith placed in Mourinho by this type of forward, with the Togo international involved in all four of April and May’s Clasicos.
However, such has been the impression made by Benzema this summer, that follows on from an excellent personal improvement under Mourinho last season, that the Portuguese finds himself with an interesting dilemma. Where the Supercopa ties may be more about pride and statement going into the new season than legacy in the Real-Barca rivalry, for Benzema, it is arguably the most crucial meeting with the enemy. Perform here and he may get the chance to do so in the competition proper, and put behind him the nightmare of last November.