How Karim Benzema has gone from Mourinho's cat to Real Madrid's lion

The oft-crticised forward has now carved out his place in the side, becoming a vital player for Zinedine Zidane

“The Cat is a Lion,” roared AS on their front page last Wednesday, splicing Karim Benzema’s face into the visage of the king of the jungle.

Jose Mourinho famously labelled the French forward a cat, back in 2010, vociferously complaining Benzema was not the hunting dog he needed up front.

“If you don’t have a dog to go out hunting with you, and you have a cat, you have to go out with a cat. You can’t go out alone,” grumbled then-Madrid coach Mourinho.

That Benzema is still at Real Madrid a decade later - possibly the most fickle and tumultuous club in the world - is proof of his transformation into one of the finest forwards in football.

As far back as 2011, Benzema himself claimed he had changed, from the work-shy, dispassionate, uncaring figure he cut at the turn of the decade, having sunk into a slump under Manuel Pellegrini.

“I’m not a cat anymore, now I'm a lion,” said Benzema, but there were a multitude of ups and downs between then and now, when he can truly claim to be the ‘mane’ man.

In February 2018 Cristiano Ronaldo needed to tell supporters at the Santiago Bernabeu to stop jeering Benzema, who missed a gilt-edged chance at the end of a 5-2 win over Real Sociedad.

Benzema, now 31, has divided opinion since arriving in 2009 from Olympique Lyon, but for the first time a consensus has formed - he is this team’s best player.

That might not be too great an achievement, given Madrid’s recent struggles, but then again this is a team which won three consecutive Champions League trophies between 2016-18.

Something has changed over the past year and a half, to lift Benzema from the depths of the 2017-18 season, when he scored just five goals in 32 league games.

Up front for Real Madrid, that is an appalling total.

In mitigation he wasn’t playing as a No 9, working out on the left to help supply Ronaldo - which also explains why the notoriously self-interested Portuguese spoke up in his defence.

Benzema put his head down and got on with it, continuing to work for the benefit of Ronaldo and the team.

The striker undoubtedly had a touch of class to his game, fantastic technique and link play making him a dream team-mate for Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

"You had a rocket (Gareth) and a goalscorer (Ronaldo), and then there was me, the piece that made it all work," Benzema told RMC Sport, talking about the feted ‘BBC’ attack.

"Here, the finisher was Cristiano. I played a different role. I was involved more in the construction of moves and trying to open up spaces.”

Benzema knew his role and coach Zinedine Zidane did too, backing the player at every turn, especially when questioned about his lack of goals.

“Zidane is like a godfather to me,” said Benzema of his French compatriot - also of Algerian descent - and the forward is paying back the coach in goals now.

Since Zizou returned to the Santiago Bernabeu in March, Benzema has 13 goals in 15 league games, hitting career-best form.

In Spain, only Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has struck more (21 goals) than Benzema’s 20 in 2019. Across Europe’s top five leagues, you can only add Robert Lewandowski (22) and Kylian Mbappe (21) to that list. That is the level he is operating at now.

This elite iteration of Benzema didn’t appear out of thin air.

In 2017, for example, his physics-defying dribble to be at three Atletico Madrid defenders helped Real Madrid squeeze past their rivals in the Champions League semi-final, claiming the final night of European football at the Vicente Calderon as his own.

Then with Ronaldo leaving to Juventus, Benzema grew into his own skin and became the focal point of the attack, instead of the butler laying on silver service.

Even as Madrid failed, crashing out of the Champions League in the last 16 and failing to add any other major trophies, Benzema thrived.

With 30 goals across all competitions, it was Benzema’s best ever return for a season with the exception of 2011-12, when he hit 32.

Zidane’s return gave him added confidence, to go with the wisdom he has accumulated and continues to add.

Benzema’s positioning and intelligence on the pitch is remarkable and they both help him arrive in the right place at the right time.

Now he’s got the freedom of the box, he’s an aerial threat despite not being the most physically imposing.

Benzema has scored nine headers in 2019, more than any other player in the big five European leagues. 

With 227 goals for Real Madrid, he is the club’s sixth highest goalscorer of all time, behind Ronaldo, Raul, Alfredo Di Stefano, Santillana and Ferenc Puskas. Some company.

Despite splitting opinion for much of his decade at Madrid, Benzema’s predatory performances in the final years of his career at the top level, are ensuring he will be granted the legendary status he deserves.



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