Madrid (AFP) – Real Madrid might want both Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland this summer but Karim Benzema’s latest Champions League hat-trick shows they already have the world’s deadliest number nine.
There is an even an argument to say Benzema is the finest player in the world full-stop right now, after he upstaged Mbappe in Madrid’s demolition of Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 and with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah struggling for form.
Carlo Ancelotti said in November Benzema was “not crying” about another Ballon d’Or passing him by, the rankings instead putting the Frenchman fourth.
But if Real Madrid can turn their 3-1 first-leg quarter-final victory over holders Chelsea on Wednesday into another march to lifting the Champions League trophy, this could, finally, be Benzema’s year.
Madrid’s pursuit of Haaland this summer certainly looks increasingly extravagant with every masterclass Benzema delivers, despite the 13 years age difference.
After all who would risk disrupting a player playing as well as this?
At 34, Benzema is getting better and better or, in his words at least, people are starting to take notice.
There is perhaps something in that analysis, that Benzema’s supporting role alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at Madrid was, and continues to be, undervalued.
But even if Benzema was the same player then, with the identical, elite technical talents, it is only now he is using them to such singular, devastating effect.
After the game at Stamford Bridge, Ancelotti pointed to Benzema’s increased feeling of importance.
“He is a player who feels more and more like a leader every day, he feels more important in the team,” said Ancelotti.
“This is what makes the difference in him, this personality.”
– ‘Magical nights’ –
It has been building since 2018, when Ronaldo was sold, Gareth Bale fell out of favour and then last year, Sergio Ramos left for PSG but Benzema stayed and every time, his sense of responsibility grew.
Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro may be the midfield grandees, and Thibaut Courtois is crucial, but Benzema is the talisman, the one player Real Madrid now cannot replace.
He turns 35 in December, the day after the World Cup final in Qatar, when it is not inconceivable he could also be celebrating with France having missed out on their 2018 triumph.
This season, he has scored the most goals of his career for Real Madrid and the most of his career in the Champions League.
He has become the oldest player to score a hat-trick in the Champions League, twice, and the most prolific French scorer in history.
When Benzema signed his first professional contract at Lyon, worth 15,000 euros ($16,300) a week, he made a speech to the squad, as was the club’s tradition.
Some of the senior players laughed at the shy, lanky teenager mumbling his words but there was silence when Benzema suddenly found his voice.
“If I’m here, it’s to take your place,” he shot back.
He soon became the star at Lyon and, after years of waiting, this is Benzema’s Real Madrid now too.
“Madrid won because they have Benzema and Chelsea don’t,” wrote the Madrid newspaper AS on Thursday.
“The reality is nobody has Benzema, who plays six different positions, often in the same move.”
There is the craft and then the fight.
After two sublime headers, Benzema completed his treble through a moment of attrition, effort and force of will.
He chased a ball many others would have given up for dead, forced a mistake from Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, and tapped into an open net.
Even in isolation, it would serve as a convincing riposte to then Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho’s barb regarding Benzema in 2011.
“If you don’t have a dog to hunt, you just use your cat,” said Mourinho.
But there have been other victims, with Benzema’s harrying causing embarrassment to amongst others PSG’s Gianluigi Donnarumma in the previous round and Liverpool’s Loris Karius in the 2018 Champions League final.
“It wasn’t luck,” said Benzema afterwards. “It was hard work.”
With La Liga sewn up, a place in the Champions League’s semi-finals is within reach.
For Benzema, it bring closer a fifth European crown to go with what will surely be four Spanish league titles.
And for now, another moment to savour.
“I will remember it for a long time,” Benzema said. “These are the magical nights.”
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