Even before Karim Benzema sealed his hat-trick against Chelsea just 30 seconds into the second half on Wednesday, the adulation had long been pouring in.
The Frenchman’s third goal, a gift from Blues keeper Edouard Mendy, was just the icing on the cake for what had been a wonderful individual performance in the first half.
When Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti was asked about his striker’s performance in his post-match press conference, the Italian was keen to refer to Benzema not as a striker, but as a “complete player”.
It would certainly be easy enough to argue that Benzema is now the most complete striker in world football – and his debut goal against Chelsea, truly a thing of beauty, can be used as proof.
After falling deep, Benzema received the ball twice near the halfway line before playing a perfect pass for the first time with the outside of his boot, strung between two Chelsea defenders, in the way of Vinícius Jr. .
Benzema then made a blistering run into the box and planted his header – almost from the edge of the box – from Vinícius’ cross directly into the top corner. As goals go, you’re likely to see a better one in the Champions League this season.
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“If you’re talking about decisive footballers, there aren’t many who can touch him,” Football España editor-in-chief Alan Feehely told CNN Sport. ” He has got everything. He is the complete striker. It’s a number 10 and a number nine…it’s just a phenomenon.
“And if Madrid go all the way in the Champions League this season, as is possible – if not probable – then I think we will look at Benzema and we will reassess the way we view him because I think he would have proven himself as one of the most elite, world-class strikers in the modern game, unlike how we see him right now, who is a very, very good footballer.
“I think if he could continue at this rate, we would consider him one of the greats.”
If it was the power of Benzema’s first header that got the better of Mendy, it was the precision of his second that did the same; running and leaning back, Benzema strained every sinew to guide Luka Modrić’s cross through the goal and into the one part of the net Mendy couldn’t 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 have pointed to the delayed role he played for Cristiano Ronaldo during their nine years together at Madrid, but Feehely says that is an “oversimplified” view of Benzema’s development.
“I think he’s matured as a person,” he says. “I think over the last few seasons he’s really focused and like a lot of players do when they hit their thirties, they can realize that time is up, there’s not much time left. at the highest level and they are revolutionizing the way they approach their physical condition, their diet, their behavior off the pitch and I think Karim is an example of that.
“It’s not about him showing what he has now that Cristiano is gone and Bale isn’t around as much – I think he’s improved for sure. You don’t stay in Madrid as long unless there’s something amazing about you.
“He was part of the teams that won four Champions League titles, so I think he was always a top footballer and the goals he scored for Madrid speak for themselves, but I I think he’s gotten better and developed and he’s gotten smarter.”
Hat-tricks in two successive Champions League knockout ties – only the second time in history after Ronaldo achieved the feat in 2017 – catapulted Benzema to 82 Champions League goals, just three by Robert Lewandowski in third place in the all-time rankings. .
Now 34, Benzema has entered the twilight of his career. However, given how his game has evolved in recent years, it’s hard to see him retiring anytime soon.
Once Benzema hangs up his boots, many will likely point to his incredible goalscoring record when arguing about football’s greatest strikers, but Feehely believes the other facets of his game will put him above most of his peers. .
Some of them are tangible, like 11 assists in La Liga this season, and some less so.
“Vinícius Jr., whom I like a lot, without Karim Benzema is by no means the same player,” says Feehely. “Benzema is a playmaker as well as a goalscorer and he improves everything because he steps back to play that withdrawn striker role.
“Because of that, he creates space for the two inside strikers – Vinícius Jr. then 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 big players have in terms of when the lights are brightest and that the pressure is on, he can produce.”
With Benzema already on 37 goals this season – only the fifth player in Real’s history to reach that milestone – few would bet against Ancelotti’s side going all the way in Europe if their star man maintains this form.
It may have taken half a decade too long, but Benzema finally seems to be getting the recognition his game deserves.