LONDON – Luka Modric has now seen almost everything there is to see. He has won four Champions League titles. He has played in the World Cup final. He has spent a decade at Real Madrid, rooted in some of the best players of his generation. He in one of the best players of his generation. He probably doesn’t impress or be easily surprised.
Just over 20 minutes into the first leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea on Wednesday, Modric saw something the two had done. He stood on the edge of Chelsea’s penalty court, admiring the run of the cross he had just committed. He would have been proud of it: a dexterous, docked number, swirling away from Edouard Mendy’s goal, and towards his teammate Karim Benzema.
An eye as keen as Modric’s eye, though, would have recognized that the ball’s trajectory and player position were not very consistent. Benzema was just too far ahead, or the cross was just too far back. It was only about an inch out, but few players treasure more detail than Modric; these things matter.
Yet, not all was lost. Benzema had options. The most obvious one was trying to steer the ball low to Mendy’s right. Or, maybe he could try to repeat the header that opened the scoring a few minutes earlier, so forcefully that he flashed past Mendy before he had a chance to identify him. In a pinch, Benzema may have time to bring the ball down, and play from there.
What Modric could not have anticipated was what followed. Benzema, leaning slightly back, nodded the ball gently, almost silently, back across Mendy’s goal. It hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime, drifting towards the farthest post. There was a moment of silence as Mendy, Modric and everyone else inside Stamford Bridge waited to see where it would land.
It was finally tucked inside the post. As Benzema turned away, his smile wide and his palms open, to race towards Real Madrid fans, Modric still seemed frozen. A beat, maybe two, waited before jumping, only slightly, into the air, his arms high, a smile of disbelief on his face. Occasionally, it turns out, Karim Benzema may even surprise Luka Modric.
In that respect, at least, he is not alone. Benzema’s career arch is, in fact, a bit misunderstood. It is not quite right to present him as a late florist, a bright talent who waited until the final years of his career to fulfill his long-standing promise, to learn how to make the most of his talents.
Benzema has always been clearly, luxuriously, absurdly gifted; he was, after all, only 19 when Jean-Pierre Papin – no vicious striker himself in his day – declared that Benzema possessed Ronaldo’s (Brazilian) dynamics, Ronaldinho’s imagination, Thierry Henry’s elegance and ruthlessness David Trézéguet.
By the time he was 21, Benzema had come close to signing for Barcelona, and completed a move to Real Madrid. He would spend the first decade of his Spanish career scoring – on average – a goal every couple of games, the traditional watermark for elite strikers, and much more. Zinedine Zidane, his coach for much of that time, variously described him as “the best” and “an absolute footballer.”
It’s not clear that he wasn’t the star of the show, of course: he only played a few yards from one of the greatest strikers ever, a frontman who scored one in two looks old-fashioned and old-fashioned . and really, when you thought about it, something of a disappointment.
Benzema was perfectly happy about that. He was willing to sacrifice his own strengths, his own ambitions, to help his fellow player make the most of him. In doing so, he ensured that no player, arguably, was more than the victim of redefining the prospect that marked the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
It’s best to think of Benzema’s golden autumn, therefore, since Ronaldo’s departure in 2018, as a kind of optical illusion: Not that it shines brighter than before, but that the flickering torch who have drowned each other for so long. point of light left. It is only now possible to see Benzema in higher detail.
What has emerged is a strange impression of the player Papin described all those years ago. Benzema has become – probably always – a complete center-forward, an all-flesh attack, and yet even that undercuts him. He is the player who makes this aging and somewhat patchwork Real Madrid a complete team.
The proof of that is simple. A few weeks ago, in his absence, Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti was smashed on home soil by a resurrected Barcelona. That night, as it suffered a 4-0 loss and the Bernabeu shouting and whistling its heroes, Real Madrid looked like what it was supposed to be: a team in the grip of an awkward and uneasy transition from one era to the the other, half. made up of a team who had had his day and a half including a team waiting for his chance.
On either side of that disappointment, with Benzema in the team, Real Madrid have defeated co-responsible Paris St.-Germain, and now – more strikingly, given the French team’s dominance for self-forgiveness – beating Chelsea, the reigning European champion, on his own turf. On both occasions, Benzema has not only scored all three goals, he has been Madrid’s brain and his heart, his focus and his initiative.
It is, almost alone, a guarantee of Real Madrid’s continued European relevance. Ancelotti will now be confident of helping his team to a second consecutive semi-final in the Spanish capital next week – though he may disagree with his Chelsea counterpart Thomas Tuchel’s assessment that the draw is over – as long as that Benzema is present. He is the one who makes it all work. Perhaps that should come as no surprise. He may have always been the one who makes it all work. It’s just that we’ve only started to notice it now.