Karim Benzema is one of the most regularly criticized players in the world, but his value for Real Madrid endures.
Real Madrid fans aren’t the most patient folk. Their bipolar nature can make a pariah out of a savior within the week, and that’s when things are going well. Every Madrid player, no matter their contribution to the club, has had to face the ire of the Santiago Bernabeu at some stage in their time at the club, and only a select few have enjoyed the pleasure for their entire career in white.
Karim Benzema is one of those “lucky” few. One would be hard pressed to find a players who, despite not being widely recognized as a star, has had so many questions asked of his ability. Criticism for the French forward has come from all corners. While in charge of Real, Jose Mourinho publicly criticized his for his weight and work ethic, claiming that starting the French forward would be like going hunting with his cat.
More recently, Gary Lineker pointed to his goalscoring numbers and suggested he was a “tad overrated” considering his teammates. There are a wide variety of reasons Real Madrid fans hate him: Many would agree with Lineker’s criticism, the jibe about his weight and work-rate still linger among some of his doubters, while newer criticisms focus on his tendency to miss easy chances.
What makes Benzema unique is that, despite all the criticism, he continues to line up in the all white. Saner minds would have (as some actually have) left the Bernabeu under this much pressure, but the 31-year-old seems largely unfazed by the constant barrage of people telling him he isn’t good enough.
Instead, Big Benz has kept his focus firmly on the pitch, where he has, contrary to popular belief, mostly been very good. Despite Lineker’s claim, hardly any of Benzema’s teammates have looked world class this season. Upon the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, the goalscoring deficit was largely shared among the remaining Real Madrid squad, and the only one who has met and exceeded their side of the bargain is Benzema. The Madrid number 9 surpassed 30 goals for the season on Sunday, scoring a hat-trick against Athletic Bilbao to bring his total to 31 goals in all competitions.
It’s an impressive feat from a player not famed for his goalscoring — though perhaps he should be. A brace in February saw Benzema surpass Hugo Sanchez as Real Madrid’s fifth all-time top goalscorer, and means that he’s scored at least 20 goals in all but three seasons in the Spanish capital.
The French forward has long surpassed the legendary Thierry Henry as the highest scoring Frenchman in the Champions League with only Raul and Cristiano Ronaldo scoring more European goals for Real Madrid than Benzema. In terms of quieting those who question his goalscoring ratio, this season should have put all doubts to rest and yet his detractors persist in discrediting him — pointing in particular to his big game record in the league this year (Benzema has scored only five goals against La Liga’s top 10).
What such criticism ignores is that, of the 59 goals Real Madrid have scored this season so far, only 19 have come against the current top 10. So not only has Benzema scored more than a quarter of Real’s goals against the top 10, but of his 16 goals against the “smaller teams,” nine were go-ahead or winning goals and four were equalizers.
Even if you remain unimpressed with his big-game record, this season is an anomaly in the context of his career. Benzema is Real Madrid’s highest active goalscorer in El Clasico, with eight goals, and scored crucial goals in the Champions League semifinal and final last season.
Benzema’s quality seems to be up for debate every season, and every season he delivers. This cycle is unlikely to come to an end even at this late stage of his career. As Real transition to a new era, Benzema’s versatility — he’s equally comfortable playing second fiddle to a player like Ronaldo as he is leading the line himself — is likely to mean he remains he key part of this team. Talent always wins and that’s why Benzema is still at Madrid.