A grin spreads across Rodrygo’s face. Standing by the training pitch at Valdebebas, he is discussing his Real Madrid teammate Karim Benzema, the four-times European Cup winner 13 years his senior who “always talks to me before games” and “helps us a lot, on and off the pitch”, someone “I always try to listen to”, when he is asked: So what’s the best advice he has ever given you? The answer is immediate. “To play the ball to him,” Rodrygo replies. There is laughter, but it is sound advice. “Every time I give him the ball, it works out,” he says.
In the 96th minute of the semi-final against Manchester City, Rodrygo played the ball for Benzema, delivering the cross from which Real Madrid got the penalty that could put them in the Champions League final and secure another absurd comeback. The Brazilian had scored two in a minute to take them to extra time and Benzema offered him the penalty to complete his hat-trick. “No, you have to take it, Karim,” Rodrygo replied. “Well, of course: after the season he’s been having …” he said afterwards.
It was the best thing he could have done. As for the season Benzema is having, it is barely believable: no one has marked a Champions League campaign quite like this, maybe ever.
Standing at the north end of the Bernabéu, Rodrygo ceding him the ball and the responsibility, Benzema scored much as he had done in Manchester, where he had dinked in a Panenka – a brave but carefully prepared response to having missed two penalties in seven minutes at Osasuna six days earlier. Scored in the 82nd minute to make it 4-3 to City, that had been the moment that gave Madrid hope for the second leg. “We’re going to do something magic: we’re going to win,” Benzema had vowed. Now he could ensure they did, the place going wild when he scored, which they knew he would.
Sound advice indeed: give the ball to Benzema. Even when he tries to give it to you. Which, unusually for a striker, he does often. That he offered the ball says much about him; that they had even got that far owed much to him. In Manchester, Benzema had scored after half an hour with City 2-0 up, the game slipping from them. Against Paris Saint Germain, they were 1-0 down at home, 2-0 on aggregate, when he hit a hat-trick. Another hat-trick followed at Stamford Bridge. Then came the 96th-minute winner in the second leg against Chelsea. Now he scored in the same minute against City.
It was his 15th goal in this season’s Champions League, two off the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2013-14 when Benzema provided for him. He has scored in every knockout game he has played – injured, he was absent in Paris – accounting for 10 of Madrid’s 14 goals since the group stage. Three against PSG, three against City, four against Chelsea. He finished as top scorer in La Liga, on 27. Plus 12 assists. He has 44 goals in 45 games this season.
“There are no words to describe how he plays,” Vinícius Júnior says. “He’s a great, great player; he’s my brother.” When it was put to Carlo Ancelotti that Madrid had Karim-dependency, he replied: “Yes. There’s no problem saying we depend on Benzema; we can’t deny it. We depend on Benzema: that’s the way it is. It’s a reality – and a good thing. I’m happy to depend on a player like him.”
If you’re going to rely on someone, let it be a man who doesn’t just play on a higher plane at the moment but seems to exist on one. “K9 is Superman”, the former Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas tweeted. “K9 is Wolverine. K9 is the concierge in your building. K9 is your best friend. K9 is your grandmother. K9 is the parachute instructor you throw yourself out of an aircraft with. K9 is your guardian angel. K9 is God!”
Ahead of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Raúl, he is the second-highest scorer in Madrid’s history. He has 323 Madrid goals, and that’s after seven years not taking a penalty. Only Lionel Messi and Ronaldo have more Champions League goals. But it is not just about the goals. He is the best No 9 in the world, Casemiro says, but Ancelotti admitted “calling him a forward feels like it stops short to me”. Zinedine Zidane once said: “People talk about Karim as a pure No 9, a 9 and a half, a 10; for me, he’s a bit of everything.”
For years, in fact, it wasn’t about the goals at all, the idea he could end near the top of those charts not really contemplated, including by him. The striker who got 11 league goals in 2016-17 and five in 2017-18 has 21, 21, 23 and 27 since. At least in part because he had to. Or, perhaps, was allowed to. Of course, 2018 was the year Ronaldo departed, the man he had served. “I had this guy alongside me that scored 50 a season,” Benzema said. Of Ronaldo’s 457 goals, Benzema assisted 47, and even that doesn’t really reflect his role as facilitator.
“Karim is more complete than five years ago,” Ancelotti said after returning to Madrid last summer. The coach has thrown in the towel at times, running out of superlatives and not knowing what to say, whether there’s anything he can add. “He’s like wine, better all the time, with every year,” he claimed. Physically, Benzema is better than ever; emotionally too. There is a confidence, a calm, an assuredness about him, almost zen. “He’s more of a leader, he feels more important and that makes the difference; he has more personality,” Ancelotti says.
More recognition too, the goals making a case for him, and that becomes self-perpetuating, the level raised all the time. “Players who help make their teammates better do shine, and with a special light,” the former Madrid manager Santiago Solari insisted, in defence of his player, but goals increase the glare. Ilkay Gündogan said: “He was underrated in the past; now he’s proving his critics wrong. For a long time he was in Ronaldo’s shadow, especially in the press, but now he’s getting the attention he deserves.”
Luka Modric says: “I’m happy for Karim. Now everyone else realises what we have all known for a long time. He’s a pleasure to play with: his understanding, his movement, his ability to break down opponents.”
Much has been made of Benzema’s evolution into a striker, although it might not be so much about him evolving into a striker as adding that role to his game. Forget being a centre-forward; Benzema is a footballer; he plays, and unlike anyone else.
“For me, Karim hasn’t changed at all – not at all,” Casemiro insists. “Now we’re talking about him as the best 9 in the world, about the Ballon d’Or. The only thing that has changed is his relationship with goals. He’s scoring more but his understanding of the game, his day-to-day, his quality, his way of seeing the game, is the same. The only thing is in other years it was Cristiano or others who scored.”
One of the things that stands out about him is his ability to disappear, slipping out of the move only to slip back in again. More often than before, that allows him to provide the finish, but that movement he always had – the understanding of when to vacate space and allow others in from which Ronaldo benefited so much – remains central to his game. “He’s very, very important: he scores the most goals and we always try to look for him,” Rodrygo says. “But he’s also important for those of us on the wing because he comes out and we can go in to try to score. He gives a lot of assists too. He’s a phenomenal player.”
Asked to list the qualities that define Benzema, one opposition manager sends a brief profile, in bullet points:
An understanding of play that few forwards have (always chooses the right option)
A capacity to combine and create overloads
Difficult to fix with a marker, and from there the timing to appear and finish
The technical quality to do so
Makes his teammates better.
Above all, Benzema makes them win, his level now beyond anyone, anywhere: a man to give the ball to, a man to rely on. Well, usually. Before the game at Stamford Bridge, he could not find his accreditation and had to go back and search for it. “I said to him: ‘Hurry up or you can’t play!’” Ancelotti revealed. “Luckily, he found it in the end.”
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