Karim Benzema: Is Real Madrid forward the world’s best player?
The Frenchman’s third goal, a gift from Blues keeper Edouard Mendy, was merely the icing on the cake for what had been a wondrous individual first-half performance.
When Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti was asked about his striker’s display in his postmatch press conference, the Italian made a point to refer to Benzema not as a striker, but as a “complete player.”
It would certainly be fairly easy to make a case for Benzema now being the most complete forward in world football — and his first goal against Chelsea, truly a thing of beauty, can be used as evidence.
After dropping deep, Benzema twice received the ball near the halfway line before playing an inch-perfect, first-time pass with the outside of his boot, threaded between two Chelsea defenders, into the path of Vinícius Jr.
Benzema then made a lung-busting run into the area and planted his header — almost from the edge of the box — from Vinícius’ cross right into the top corner. As all-around goals go, you will unlikely see a better one in the Champions League this season.
“And if Madrid do go all the way in the Champions League this season, as is possible — if not likely — then I think that we’ll look at Benzema and we’ll reevaluate how we see him because I think he would have proven himself to be one of the most elite, world class forwards of the modern game, as opposed to kind of how we see him right now, which is as a very, very good footballer.
“I think if he could continue this pace, we’ll look back at him as one of the greats.”
If it was the power in Benzema’s first header that got the better of Mendy, then it was the precision of his second that did the same; running and leaning backwards, Benzema strained every sinew to guide Luka Modrić’s cross back across goal and into the only part of the net that Mendy was unable to reach.
Despite his goals and accolades, Benzema has undoubtedly been one of the most underrated strikers, if not players, in Europe over the past decade. Many people have pointed to the deferred role he played to Cristiano Ronaldo during their nine years together in Madrid, but Feehely says this is an “over-simplistic” view on Benzema’s development.
“I think that he has matured as a person,” he says. “I think that in the last few seasons, he’s really become focused and as a lot of players do when they get to their 30s, they can realize that time is finite, that there’s not much more time time left at the top level and they revolutionize how they approach their fitness, their diet, their off-field behavior and I think that Karim is an example of that.
“It’s not a case of him showing what he’s got now that Cristiano is gone and that Bale isn’t there as much anymore — I think he’s gotten better for sure. You don’t stay at Madrid for that long unless there’s something about you that’s incredible.
“He’s been part of the teams that have won four Champions League titles, so I think he’s always been a top, top class footballer and the goals he scored for Madrid speaks for itself, but I think that he’s improved and he’s developed and he’s become more intelligent.”
Hat-tricks in two successive Champions League knockout games — only the second time in history that has happened after Ronaldo achieved the feat in 2017 — have catapulted Benzema onto 82 Champions League goals, just three behind Robert Lewandowski in third on the all-time rankings.
Now 34, Benzema has entered the twilight of his career. However, given the way his game has developed in recent years, it’s hard to see him retiring any time soon.
Once Benzema does hang up his boots, many will likely point to his incredible goals record when making arguments about football’s greatest strikers, but Feehely believes the other facets to his game will put him above most of his peers.
Some of them are tangible, such as a league-high 11 assists in La Liga this season, and other less so.
“Vinícius Jr., who I like a lot, without Karim Benzema isn’t the same player by any means,” Feehely explains. “Benzema is a playmaker as well as a goalscorer and he makes everything better because he pulls back to play that withdrawn striker role.
“Because of that, he creates space for the two inside forwards — Vinícius Jr. and then either Marco Asensio, Rodrigo or Fede Valverde last night — and he also combines that with an ability to get into the box himself and score goals himself.
“So it’s a phenomenal situation, really, and I think the most important thing about him is that he has that clutch gene that the great players have in terms of when the lights are brightest and the pressure is on, he can produce.”
With Benzema already on 37 goals this season — only the fifth player in Real history to reach that milestone — few would bet against Ancelotti’s side going all the way in Europe if his star man maintains this form.
It may have taken half a decade too long, but Benzema appears to be finally receiving the recognition his play deserves.