Time often seems to move quicker in sport than in other walks of life and football is no exception. A team’s fortunes can turn on its head, taking it from crisis mode to a promising resurgence within a week.
For Karim Benzema, a couple of months have made all the difference to the narrative of his Real Madrid existence. At the end of last season, the Frenchman was most likely to be sold by the Spanish giants after scoring just 12 times in 47 appearances in all competitions.
During his trophy laden two-and-a-half year spell as Madrid boss, Zinedine Zidane would repeatedly come to his compatriot’s defence, citing his intelligence, movement and overall contribution as justification for his consistent inclusion in the team, even at the expense of Isco and Gareth Bale at times.
Two interesting examples from Benzema - how to use active zone of the defender in order to attract him closer to teammates, release the space and change direction into the blind zone with disatvantegous body orinetation [1st example]. pic.twitter.com/jeipLIsMLm— Mindfootballness (@slawekmorawski) August 28, 2018
Whichever way you slice it though, 12 goals over the course of a season from Madrid’s first-choice striker is an exceptionally poor return and quite simply, unacceptable. Zidane’s resignation soon after winning a third successive Champions League title appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for Benzema.
The likes of Harry Kane and Robert Lewandowski were touted as possible replacements while ever-improving Inter Milan forward Mauro Icardi featured among the rumours as well. But everything changed midway through the summer.
While all eyes were trained on the knockout stages of the World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo stole the headlines like only he could as news of his transfer from Madrid to Juventus broke. Suddenly, finding an upgrade to Benzema was no longer pressing. Replacing Ronaldo and keeping hold of Bale took priority.
With Madrid losing at least 40 goals a season with Ronaldo’s departure though, the club were still fully expected to sign a striker at some point this summer, but that it would be a good omen for Benzema’s future in the Spanish capital has come as a surprise.
Los Blancos’ decision to exercise their right of first refusal and re-sign Mariano Diaz from Lyon is an emphatic vote of confidence in the Frenchman’s ability from new manager Julen Lopetegui.
While Mariano has impressed with 21 goals for the Ligue 1 outfit last season, prompting Sevilla to launch a €35 million bid for the striker’s services, he is very much viewed as back-up for Benzema at the Bernabeu rather than first choice. Having featured in the reserve sides and briefly as a squad player for the first team from 2012 to 2016, Mariano’s return to the fold should be seamless.
There was plenty of substance in Zidane’s claims regarding Benzema’s contribution. He was always part of an illustrious and expensively assembled supporting cast for star man Ronaldo.
In the Portuguese’s absence, Lopetegui has begun to extract more from the other top players at his disposal and Benzema is certainly one of them. Every one of their starting XI are superstars in their own right who were kept from reaching their full potential while operating under Ronaldo’s shadow. No one epitomises that more than Benzema.
For nine years, the 30-year-old played second fiddle to the former Manchester United star. With every passing season, he was sacrificing more and more of himself as a striker to feed a relentless goalscoring machine that he could perhaps never compete with. Whether it was coming short so Ronaldo could dart in behind, dragging defenders away with decoy runs or simply laying it off for him when he could’ve easily let fly himself, Benzema always unselfishly provided the platform for his celebrated team-mate to shine.
The Ronaldo era is now confined to the history books as far as Madrid are concerned and Benzema is already proving capable of spearheading a fresh start. The striker has scored in each of his opening three competitive games for the club this season and was particularly impressive most recently against Girona.
After having a well-taken goal ruled offside, he kept his composure to score from the spot before tucking away Bale’s pass for his second late on. With three shots, three key passes and a pass success rate of 87 per cent, Benzema was among the best players during his side’s 4-1 away victory that took them to the top of the La Liga standings on goal difference.
We’re seeing a new Benzema at Madrid, or perhaps the old one from his heyday at Lyon is finally being coaxed back into the spotlight. For that reason, at €23m, it makes sense for Lopetegui to bulk up his forward options with the capable Mariano and perhaps reserve funds for that ‘big-money’ signing – possibly Neymar – for next summer.
Many pointed to Bale as the natural heir to Ronaldo’s throne and while the Welshman is promising to excel this season, it was always unfair to lay that burden solely at his albeit gifted feet. That cross should not be just his to bear and a rejuvenated Benzema is proving that it doesn’t need to be either.
Good day Madridistas!
The Sport360 team is here bringing you the latest Real Madrid news on Tuesday.
10pm – Vinicius Junior tipped for stardom
Real Madrid Castilla coach Santiago Solari says young Brazilian Vinicius Junior will bring “a lot of happiness” to the club in the future after handing the 18-year-old his Castilla debut on Sunday.
9pm – Xabi Alonso begins coaching career
Former Los Blancos midfielder Xabi Alonso has taken his first steps into management, taking charge of Madrid’s Infantil A side. He’s one of three former Madrid players climbing up the coaching ranks at the club.
Read more here.
5:30pm – Ronaldo wins UEFA.com goal of the season award
Cristiano Ronaldo’s bicycle kick goal against Juventus, his new employers in the first leg of last season’s Champions League quarterfinal has been voted the goal of the season on UEFA.com.
Read more here.
5.15pm – Madrid celebrate Lopetegui’s birthday
Head coach Julen Lopetegui is celebrating his 52nd birthday on Tuesday, and the club marked the occasion with a montage of the manager’s best moments of his short Madrid career so far.
3.30pm – Lopetegui in contact with Mariano
According to Marca, Whites boss Julen Lopetegui has been in touch with Lyon striker Mariano in a bid to convince the former Los Blancos star to move back to the Bernabeu.
Reportedly, their conversation could be make-or-break for the striker over whether he returns to the Spanish capital.
12.30pm – Los Blancos chase Mariano signature
Real Madrid could make a late move for former White and Lyon forward Mariano, who had been set on a transfer window switch to Sevilla.
Read the full story, here.
10am – Lunin loan deal agreed
Los Blancos, on Monday evening, confirmed young Ukrainian goalkeeper Andriy Lunin will spend this season on loan at Leganes.
The 19-year-old arrived from Zorya Luhansk in June and is set to gain valuable first-team experience, given Thibaut Courtois and Keylor Navas are the two senior goalies at the Bernabeu.
9.30am – Watch Bale’s August goals
Whites superstar Gareth Bale has a habit of finding the net in August…
🐲👌 Watch @GarethBale11‘s GOALS in August!
— Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) August 27, 2018
Former Madrid midfielder Santiago Solari, now Castilla manager, gave Vinicius his first appearance in a 2-0 win over Las Palmas Atletico, then backed the 18-year-old to bring Madrid “a lot of happiness”.
“It’s not about what Vinicius can give to Castilla,” Solari said. “It’s about what the club, the institution, Castilla and the technical staff can give him to improve and to adapt because he will bring us a lot of happiness in the future.”
The Brazilian youngster linked up with Madrid this summer after agreeing to join the side last July, and featured heavily in preseason. However, manager Julen Lopetegui dropped him from the first team for the UEFA Super Cup tie against Atletico Madrid, and then the La Liga opener against Getafe.