Karim Benzema justifies Real Madrid backing with stellar performance in Uefa Champions League semi-finals
Those who know striker say he acknowledges support of club president Florentino Perez and manager Zinedine Zidane, and Frenchman played well enough to deserve standing ovation
It was a minute after half time when Real Madrid’s PA announcer was moved to scream ‘Gol de Karim!’ four times. And on each occasion, 76,000 home fans hollered ‘BENZEMA!’ back, getting louder every time.
Those ecstatic cries came when the French striker had put Madrid in front in their stirring Uefa Champions League semi-final, an error from Bayern Munich’s goalkeeper Sven Ulrich allowing him an easy finish. It was Benzema’s 54th Champions League goal in 102 games.
Among current players only Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have scored more.
Benzema scored Madrid’s first, too, heading in a cross from Marcelo after 11 minutes when he found space at the far post, a much-needed equaliser after Joshua Kimmich’s third minute goal gave Bayern the lead and made the tie 2-2 on aggregate.
Benzema’s opener, the final touch of a 28-pass move, prompted an immense celebration as the former Lyon player, in his ninth season at Madrid, ran towards the corner flag with his arms outstretched. His teammates Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez and Luka Modric flooded towards him in unabated joy.
Madrid, as the ‘Kings of Europe’ flags and scarves on sale outside the Bernabeu attest, live for European success.
The match was far from over. James Rodriguez, who came to Munich via Madrid, scored a 63rd-minute goal to make the game 2-2 on the night and 3-4 on aggregate, meaning Bayern only needed another goal to go through, but Madrid hung on in a breathtaking finish.
Most of Bayern Munich’s players slumped to the floor, disconsolate, after another epic Bernabeu game between the two giants of European football. Meanwhile, the victorious Madrid players ran hand-in-hand and charged at both ends of football’s grandest stadium before jumping in unison in delight at their latest success.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who reached a sixth Champions League final, took off his shirt and and threw it into a section of 3,000 similarly white-shirted Madrid fans beyond the south goal, where they were waving a solitary flag with his No 7 on.
The Madrid players later returned from the dressing room without their boots but with their children, to salute fans after what Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes described as a “a world-class football match”.
This was a game in which Benzema had been instrumental, as Zinedine Zidane - who has won all 11 knockout ties he has faced in the competition as Madrid boss - acknowledged.
“I am very happy for Karim. He wanted to score tonight and he scored twice. Him doing that he allowed us to make it through the final.
“Karim has played a good season despite the drought he suffered. It is true that he had a drought, but in spite of that he has had a good season.
"He always did his job on the pitch and I always believed in him. I think our fans did the same.”
Many commentators in the media did not and Benzema, who is beloved by club president Florentino Perez, appeared to be losing even Zidane’s favour as he started on the bench at home in the last round against Juventus and only came on for the final 23 minutes in he first leg in Munich. He was also on the bench for the recent Madrid derby against Atletico.
Despite Benzema being Ronaldo’s favourite strike partner, the man who creates space for him by pulling defenders left and right, critics said he did not work hard enough or score enough goals – just nine from 41 games before Tuesday.
When he started as captain but did not score against Leganes at the weekend, he was not expected to start against Bayern. But he did – and how he vindicated that decision and not only by his goalscoring exploits.
Benzema’s relentless running and movement are admired by teammates. Time and time again, he combined with Modric in channels on the right going forward. But he also came back frequently, winning the ball seven times, more than any other Madrid player.
On one occasion after 20 minutes, he won the ball in the middle near the centre circle and took it wide out of danger, earning applause and a cry of ‘This is Madrid!’ from a fan near your correspondent.
Benzema got lucky – Madrid always get lucky – after what Heynckes described as “a gift that we gave Real Madrid” for their second goal, “a little blackout”. Just like last year, Bayern were the better side, but they presented chances to Madrid and failed to take their own.
“All Madrid were doing was counter attacks,” Heynckes pointed out. “My team played very well. Quite a few of our players were injured, five of our top seven, but we put on such a beautiful display in front of 80,000 people. All of my players played brilliantly, it's a shame that we are out.”
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Madrid, meanwhile, go on to a fourth Champions League final in five years, their third in succession. Benzema will now be a favourite to start in Kiev on May 26.
Those who know him say he needs strong people above him and the 30-year-old player feels that he has that in the supportive Perez and Zidane.
Benzema was given a deserved standing ovation when he came off for Gareth Bale after 71 minutes, while his replacement’s future at the club is in far more doubt.
No longer an automatic starter for his side’s biggest games, the Welshman - who has a contract in Spain until 2022 - will be linked again with a move. It could probably be to Manchester United, one of the few clubs that can afford him. But while United can be tempted by big names, they are not looking for forwards.
Bale can be brilliant, but he has been sorely hampered by injuries, starting less than half Madrid’s Primera Liga and Champions League games. He needs a change of fortune, like the one his teammate had against Bayern.
“Benzema’s showed that he’s a great player,” Zidane concluded. “He never gives up.”
Nor do Madrid.
Updated: May 2, 2018 03:14 PM