Madrid (AFP) – Real Madrid might not reach the Champions League final but Karim Benzema has given them a chance, his genius against Chelsea the embodiment of a team that still never knows when it is beaten.
Benzema’s thunderbolt volley gives Madrid parity at the end of a first leg that could have been won decisively by Chelsea, who were the superior team overall and, for 25 minutes, made their opponents look weary, rigid, even out of date.
But the most recent additions to Real Madrid’s 13 European Cups have come from their ability to bend these matches to their will, to weather the storms and then accelerate when the wind is behind them.
Again and again, they have shown themselves to be masters of moments, their belief that in the end they will win creating certainty when it is needed most and for their opponents, doubt, just when they think they have the upper hand.
It comes from a history of success and the hubris of a club convinced it has earned the right even to play in a Super League, only ever against the biggest teams, bypassing the need to qualify, and for theoretical fans that see Real Madrid winning as the beginning and end of the sport.
It comes from a coach too in Zinedine Zidane, whose philosophy is not so much possession or pressing but calm, and players, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and on Tuesday night, Benzema.
Eight minutes before his goal, it was Benzema stirring the first signs of recovery. He robbed the ball off Antonio Rudiger on the halfway line and played two passes, each time demanding it back, before circling into the centre and firing off a shot that shaved the outside of the post.
In the stadium, it was a trigger, Madrid’s substitutes raised to their feet and Ramos behind them also standing up, flapping his hands and shouting “Come on guys! That’s it! A bit more now! Believe!”
Chelsea’s were still in charge but from that moment their dominance began to fade. Benzema turbo-charged another counter-attack down the right, his punching pass out to Toni Kroos on the opposite side the one that led to Kroos winning the corner, that led to Benzema throwing his body at the ball and the ball flying into Chelsea’s net.
– ‘No doubts’ Benzema among the best –
“Benzema took responsibility in reviving the belief of a team that appeared to be creaking, and to a large extent they are, but so often they find something more,” wrote El Pais.
Marca said: “There are no doubts remaining that Benzema belongs to the most distinguished class of footballers.” “He woke the team up,” wrote AS.
When Benzema signed his first professional contract with Lyon, he was made to give an initiation speech at a squad dinner and the cocky 20-year-old irked some of the senior players by telling them he would soon be taking their place.
Thirteen years later, he is the fourth most prolific goalscorer in the history of the Champions League, level on 71 with Raul, behind only Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.
If recognition has come late, it is in part because Benzema has saved his best until last, his flourishing into a graceful but deadly number nine occurring after many had perhaps made their minds up: Ronaldo’s support act could never be among the very best himself.
And yet just as his late equaliser against Atletico Madrid last month gave Real Madrid life in La Liga, it was his intervention against Chelsea that has now them alive in the Champions League too.
“Nothing surprises me about Karim,” said Zidane, who had earlier taken him off in the 89th minute, the kind of substitution usually designed to give the home crowd the chance to applaud.
Instead, Zidane stepped in, smiling, whispering, an arm around his shoulder, another moment seized and the final still in sight.
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