"I can't say my start to the season has been great," admitted Karim Benzema in an interview ten days ago. He was frustrated at being second fiddle to Gonzalo Higuaín in Real Madrid's attack, playing 260 fewer minutes less than his fellow striker, and had scored just one goal in the league.
"Of course I want to play more," he continued. "Since the start of the season I've spent more time on the bench than I have on the pitch, but I'm going to continue to fight for my place and make the most of all the minutes I play for the team."
But a hamstring tear to Higuaín meant Benzema, who had just recovered from a thigh injury, returned to the starting line up against Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night. And return really is the word.
The Frenchman was far and away the man of the match as Madrid stormed to a 5-1 win over the Basques, a constant threat to Athletic's defence, be it coming down the left hand side, the right, or through the middle, where the opening goal of the night came from.
Madrid had had several half chances against an adventurous Athletic, lead by the madcap Marcelo Bielsa, a man who will never tell his team to go out and just defend, but took the lead on 12 minutes when Luka Modric received the ball inside his own half, spotted Benzema's run and delivered a fine lofting pass for the forward to run onto. Athletic's defence was stretched, and left-back Jon Aurtenetxe made a desperate attempt to block Benzema's shot but instead deflected the ball over goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz and into the net.
Barely a minute later Benzema was at the heart of the attack again, putting through an off colour Cristiano Ronaldo, who shot straight at Iraizoz. The Portuguese has not had an easy past seven days, from getting elbowed in the face by David Navarro against Levante to reports emerging that he could leave Madrid in the summer. Whatever the reason, Ronaldo was not at his best, and instead the night belonged to Benzema, who scored a superb goal just after Sergio Ramos's header from a Mesut Özil free-kick had doubled the lead. On this occasion Benzema received a pass from José Callejón with his back to goal and under pressure, swivelled and curled the ball into the far corner with his left foot.
Benzema was not done yet, and provided the pass for Mesut Özil's goal, Madrid's fourth, after he was released by Ronaldo. It was a great team goal, needing just three touches - one from each forward - to take the ball from the halfway line to the back of the net.
Benzema's performance displayed all his best qualities: a clear understanding with his team-mates, unselfish play and composure in front of goal. Madrid-based sports paper AS called the match 'The night of Benzema', while its editor described it as the forward's best performance in a Madrid shirt.
Normally such a performance would lead the home crowd to chant the player's name, but the Santiago Bernabéu faithful are a strange bunch. Madrid's fans rarely make much of a noise, even against a historic rival like Athletic Bilbao, and the only players who got their names sung were homegrown players Callejón and substitute Álvaro Morata, who got the winning goal against Levante the week before.
Madrid's most vocal supporters, the right wing Ultras Sur, predictably had some vociferous chants for their Basque opponents, from shouting "you are a junkie" to Athletic captain Carlos Gurpegui, who served a two-year ban for testing positive for nandrolone, to "Fuck you ETA, Fuck you Susaeta" to midfielder Markel Susaeta, who had irked many Spaniards by not mentioning the word Spain in a press conference ahead of his debut for 'La Roja' on Wednesday against Panama.
One chant that was sung by the whole stadium, however, was 'This is how Madrid win', a message of appreciation for their team's performance, and a sarcastic response to opposition fans singing the same words when Madrid win a match thanks to a favourable refereeing decision.
When Benzema is on form, there is no doubt that Madrid play better. Higuaín may have a superior goals-to-game ratio but the Frenchman offers much more and, if given a run of games, will no doubt follow it with a run of goals. Once Higuaín returns, Mourinho will have to make a tough decision about which striker he chooses to partner Ronaldo and Ángel Di María in attack, but this blog firmly believes it should be Benzema.
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