Of all Real Madrid's expensively acquired summer purchases, one is notable by his relative failure. French striker Karim Benzema, a ?32 million (Dh174m) signing from Lyon, has not reached the standards expected. His body language does not suggest that he is happy and he has been publicly critical of his coach Manuel Pellegrini.The whisper is that Real are terrified that he is the new Nicolas Anelka - that he is not a world-class striker, but a surly, sulky French youngster who becomes a costly liability in the dressing room.
Florentino Perez, the club president, will not give up easily on the striker who was courted by Manchester United before moving to Spain and last week began measures to assimilate Benzema to his new life.Whereas Cristiano Ronaldo speaks Spanish and Kaka is improving every week, Benzema is only about to start learning the language. The club have also encouraged him to move out of his city centre hotel into what they hope will be a more convivial atmosphere of his own home. Quite where the atmosphere will come from is another issue.
Faced with competition from the in-form Gonzalo Higuain, club legend Raul and Ronaldo, Benzema has been on the bench with fellow striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in the past few weeks - the patience of his coach seemingly exhausted after too many no shows. This personal relegation appears to have motivated him and his performances have improved markedly to the point that 70 per cent of Real fans want him to start in forthcoming matches. Benzema has scored five goals so far, half the haul of Ronaldo - who has been out injured for half the season so far.
One came on Saturday night when he followed up a Ronaldo penalty. The next day, he did a press conference at the club's request to quell fears that he will soon by on his way. "I have a new home and I'm learning Spanish to understand my teammates better," he explained. "This translates into good performances on the pitch."Asked for his views on what it has been like to be a substitute recently, he diplomatically replied: "This is what being a football player is like. Sometimes you play and sometimes you don't. You have to earn being started and I'm working on it."
Benzema has not become a bad player overnight. He is a natural-born striker, a classic No 9, but he has been asked to play out of position - much to his frustration. To sum up his time at the Bernabeu so far, Benzema said: "It's still early. I want to play. I'm at a big club and there is a lot of pressure here, but I feel comfortable."Few are convinced, but he will be given plenty of chances before Perez admits failure.
And one could be tonight when he returns to France as Real play at Marseille in the important final Group C Champions League game. Real lead the group with 10 points, but with AC Milan on eight points and Marseille on seven, qualification is not yet assured. In the group's other game, Milan hope to avenge the embarrassing home defeat to FC Zurich in Switzerland and Real will be desperate to finish top of the group to avoid the strongest sides in the last 16 - the stage they have been unable to pass for the last five years.
As a former Lyon player, Benzema will be singled out and booed mercilessly by the 60,000 Velodrome crowd. "We expect the match in Marseille to be tough," he stated. Not half as tough as the fight to assure his long-term future at Real Madrid. firstname.lastname@example.org