Can Jose Mourinho lead Karim Benzema back into the flock?

With the reinstitution of the Galáctico policy following Florentino Pérez’s return as President of Real Madrid last summer, Pérez wasted no time in the second construction of his universe-beating side.  Lost in the shuffle of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, and Xabi Alonso joining the club, Karim Benzema quietly transferred from Olympique Lyonnais to Real Madrid, if a €35 million transfer can be considered as quiet.

Real stalwart Gonzalo Higuaín and aging team legend and Real all-time goal-scorer Raúl González Blanco stood in the way of Karim Benzema from immediately usurping the starting center forward position in trainer (what managers are called in Spain) Manuel Pellegrini’s system.  After a couple months of shuffling the starting eleven, Pellegrini justifiably relegated Benzema to a role as a super sub, marginalizing Benzema’s impact on the pitch.

Another summer of world-class player signings and a coaching change signaled a dying hope that Benzema would become more of the player that garnered €35 million for Lyon in 2009.  No such luck for Benzema, as José Mourinho opted for his patented 4-2-3-1 with Gonzalo Higuaín as the lone figure up front.  In his only start in La Liga this season against Osasuna, the Real Madrid attack played disjointedly, and Benzema ghosted through his seventy-one minute appearance with little to no impact.

With an important match against Hércules, the giant-killers of La Liga this season, Mourinho saw no reason to change a successful lineup, which meant another seat on the substitute’s bench for Karim Benzema.

If Real Madrid had any inclinations of cruising through their match against Hércules, the Greek demi-god punched them in the mouth early when David Trézéguet tallied the opening goal in the third minute.  David Cortés provided the perfect cross from the right wing, and from just inside the penalty spot, Pepe could not recover to challenge Trézéguet in the air, and Trézéguet lofted his header to the right far post, where Iker Casillas could only watch helplessly as the ball nestled into his net.

Hércules has written this story in volumes this season.  They sauntered into the Camp Nou without any visible signs of nervousness or tension and defeated Barcelona 0-2 on the backing of two Nelson Haedo Valdez strikes.  At home against Sevilla, David Trézéguet notched a brace as they made los nervionenses look lifeless and diffident, ultimately costing Sevilla trainer Antonio Álvarez his job.  On a Monday night, with Villarreal needing a win to sit on top of the mountain in La Liga for the first time in its history, Hércules did not treat their Valencian neighbors with such exaltation as they fought to a 2-2 draw after falling a man down for the majority of the second half.

Ángel di María equalized early in the second half after capitalizing on Hércules goalkeeper Juan Calatayud spillage from Cristiano Ronaldo’s thirty-yard speculative effort, and while Real heaped the pressure on Hércules, they could not fashion the killer chance that would give them the lead.  With fifteen minutes left on the clock, José Mourinho made his first switch of the match, taking out the central defender Pepe and sending in striker Karim Benzema.  While many note Mourinho for his ability to inspire his players and his acumen for defensively organizing his teams on the pitch with the control of an obsessive-compulsive, his adroitness to move the chess pieces around during the match remains understated.

After Benzema posted another poor game against Real Murcia in the Copa del Rey, no one would have been surprised if Benzema fell off Mourinho’s map completely.  Before that Copa del Rey tie on Tuesday, Mourinho sent an ultimatum to his player concerning their Segunda División B hosts:

“If last year’s situation (at Alcorcon) repeats itself, I will cross those who play off my list because they will be dead to me.”

Mourinho invoked the spirit of Don Vito Corleone with that line, but with most of what Mourinho says during press conferences, these statements should be taken with a grain of salt.  After Marcelo and sporting director Jorge Valdano vowed their support for Benzema, Mourinho reiterated his backing for the under-fire Benzema.  At the Friday press conference preceding their Saturday match against Hércules, Mourinho encouraged Benzema while deflecting criticism of his player by taking pot shots at his rivals, a Mourinho specialty:

“The person primarily responsible for his performance is the player himself.  The coach is simply an employee.  He is not playing well, but he is not dead.  We will try to improve him and get him to a level close to his potential.  There are other teams who have other players who have cost a lot of money and have not gotten enough goals.”

This thinly veiled attack on “struggling” FC Barcelona striker David Villa surely had the scribes in the Madrid and Barcelona press in full typing and writing gear, which served Mourinho’s purpose perfectly, as it took the attention away from Benzema and on another topic.

Benzema could not hide behind Mourinho’s words anymore as he sent the French international in to change the match with a quarter of an hour left.

Hiding would be the antonym of what Benzema provided for los blancos, and six minutes after Benzema’s inclusion into the match, Real stunned the crowd in the Estadio José Rico Pérez with the go-ahead goal to make it 1-2.

Marcelo should get credit for most of that goal as his run down the left flank and up the end line, rounding David Cortés on the way with strength not normally associated with the Brazilian fullback, provided the decisive cutback pass for Benzema in the penalty area.  With a striker’s instinct, Benzema’s first-time shot blistered at Calatayud’s goal, forcing Calatayud to parry it away with aplomb due to the velocity of the shot.  Fortunately for Real Madrid, the rebound off Calatayud’s save went straight to Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ronaldo side-footed it into the open net.

With a slim one-goal lead, an insurance goal would put the match away for Real, and in the 86th minute, that situation occurred to give the league-leaders the 1-3 cushion.  Ronaldo provided the through ball for Benzema into space near the endline on the right wing, and Benzema rewarded Ronaldo with a pinpoint cutback pass from the endline, and Ronaldo made no mistake with his first-time effort as he powered it past Calatayud to his right near post.

1-3 fulltime, and no two men were happier with the win than José Mourinho and Karim Benzema.

In Greek mythology, Hercules died after he wore a tunic his wife Deianeira gave him covered in Hydra’s poisonous blood.  Deianeira did not know that the tunic contained the blood because the mischievous centaur Nessus gave the shirt to her, telling her it would bring about the excitement of love to her husband.  Benzema was that blood-soaked tunic, and Mourinho played the part of Deianeira, not knowing that Benzema would ultimately kill Hércules with his striking poison.

While Hércules suffered this Greek tragedy, Karim Benzema became the hero, if only for a day.  Like Odysseus, Benzema is still traveling on his odyssey to find the consistent form that the Madridistas demand and the exorbitant transfer fee expects.

Will a superb fifteen minutes turn around over a year of underwhelming play for club and country?  With a settled starting eleven that shows no signs of breaking down, Benzema will have to prove his worth in substitute appearances in La Liga and the Champions League and spot starts in the Copa del Rey.  When the rumors flew around that Benzema was leaving the Stade de Gerland and Lyon, Benzema did not play up to his capabilities, as Lyon did not win Ligue 1 in 2009 after seven consecutive championships.

As the rumors continue to swirl about his transfer out of Madrid to Manchester United and other European suitors, Benzema will need to provide more efficient performances, as he did in his fifteen-minute stint against Hércules.  When Lyon faded in the 2008-09 season to a distant third place, Benzema was the central figure in Lyon’s attack, and although he scored seventeen goals, second behind André-Pierre Gignac’s twenty-four, Benzema’s personality befits more of a secondary scorer rather than the main man.

Benzema certainly is not the center of focus with Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín delivering the majority of the scoring.  If Benzema keeps his nose to the grindstone and focuses on his football rather than what the writers are saying about him, it might not keep him in Madrid but will make him look much more attractive to other European suitors.  Benzema is likely playing for his next job, and Real Madrid should be excited about that prospect because he will try twice as hard to look good for Manchester United, et al., which means a higher chance of productive performances for Real Madrid and Mourinho’s men.

Fueras de Juego

Villarreal should feel fortunate to come away from the monsoon in El Molinón with a 1-1 draw after former Villarreal midfielder Sebastián Eguren gave his old team a gift by putting his arms around Carlos Marchena in the penalty area in stoppage time to hand the Yellow Submarine a soft penalty.  Marchena predictably fell to the ground like a sack of flour when he felt a hint of Eguren’s arms around him.  The match could be twisted as a good comeback with a man down after Gonzalo Rodríguez received his second yellow card with fifteen minutes left, but it showed more that Villarreal still has trouble winning away from El Madrigal, and these types of results will prevent them from challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid, unfortunately.

– Espanyol made Deportivo La Coruña look like the “Super Depor” of a decade ago as the Galicians earned their first victory of the season with a 3-0 thumping of Espanyol at El Riazor on Sunday afternoon.  Similar to Villarreal, Espanyol finds it hard to achieve results away from home, but whereas Villarreal’s 2-2-1 away record is decent enough to challenge for a UEFA Champions League spot, Espanyol’s 1-0-4 dreadful away record will prevent los periquitos from earning a top-six spot and a UEFA Europa League berth.  Due to the other results this weekend, Espanyol somehow stayed in fifth position after Jornada 9, but until they can right their woes away from the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat, Espanyol will end up with another mid-table finish.

– Although Málaga created eight more scoring chances than Real Sociedad (11 to 3), held 58% of the possession, and had six more shots on target than Real Sociedad (9 to 3), La Liga’s most explosive team on both ends of the pitch lost again at home, this time to Real Sociedad 1-2.  Five losses out of five at La Rosaleda are simply inexcusable for Jesualdo Ferreira’s team as they fall into the relegation zone for the first time this season.  For Real Sociedad, the trio of Antoine Griezmann, Xabi Prieto, and Joseba Llorente are as entertaining an attacking force as any in La Liga, including the Messi-Pedro-Villa threesome at Barcelona, Ronaldo-Higuaín-di María at Real, or Nilmar-Rossi-Cazorla at Villarreal.  Llorente slotted a perfectly weighted through ball for Griezmann, which Griezmann placed into the net for the opening goal, and Xabi Prieto curled a meticulous cross from the left wing that Llorente could not miss.

– In Sevilla’s last two matches in La Liga at the Camp Nou as well as the second leg of the 2010 Supercopa de España in Barcelona, Sevilla lost all those matches 4-0.  Saturday night’s match against Barcelona in the Camp Nou broke that trend.  It was 5-0 in favor of Barcelona.