Istanbul (AFP) – For Karim Benzema, the UEFA men’s player of the year prize is unlikely to be the last recognition he receives for his role in Real Madrid’s memorable run to Champions League glory last season.
The Ballon d’Or will surely follow in October, before he heads to the World Cup in Qatar with France in November and December with the aim of completing a truly remarkable career renaissance.
It is not long ago that Benzema, who will turn 35 the day after the World Cup final in December, was a pariah, frozen out of the France team for five and a half years because of his involvement in a blackmail scandal over a sextape involving his former teammate Mathieu Valbuena.
The Lyon native went on trial late last year and was handed a one-year suspended prison sentence along with a fine of 75,000 euros ($74,659).
In June he decided not to appeal his conviction, eager to turn the page and keep the focus on football.
Benzema scored an astonishing 44 goals in 46 games for Real last season, including 27 in La Liga as he ended the campaign as the top scorer in Spain’s top flight by a distance.
But his very best form came in the Champions League, in which he was also the leading marksman with 15 goals in just 12 appearances.
Wearing the captain’s armband, Benzema scored five times in the group stage for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, but the best was to come in the knockout rounds.
He scored a stunning hat-trick in 17 second-half minutes in the spectacular last-16 comeback win over Paris Saint-Germain, and another away to Chelsea in the quarter-final first leg.
It was also his extra-time goal in the return leg of that tie that nipped a Chelsea comeback in the bud, and he then scored three more goals over both legs of the semi-final against Manchester City, including an extra-time spot-kick in the return leg at the Santiago Bernabeu which secured Real’s spot in the final.
“Football is difficult, there are moments when you are dominated and have to hang in there. At Madrid we never give up,” said Benzema.
He was not the standout player in the final itself, with Vinicius Junior scoring the only goal of the game and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in inspired form at the other end.
Courtois was also nominated for the UEFA prize, along with Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, but there was little question of anyone other than Benzema being crowned.
“What is most important to me is to win collective trophies. If you do things well on the field, individual awards will follow,” said Benzema.
This season has already started with Benzema — who was a prodigious young talent at hometown team Lyon before moving to Real aged 21 in 2009 — scoring as Real beat Eintracht Frankfurt to win the UEFA Super Cup in Helsinki.
The Ballon d’Or should be next, and then Benzema will set his sights on the World Cup, a trophy he missed out on winning with France in 2018 during his long international exile.
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