RIYADH: It almost defies belief that Karim Benzema is producing remarkable goalscoring statistics and setting historic landmarks aged 34.
It is an age where footballers in the modern era have often found it harder to maintain peak performance at a brutally challenging level — and are subsequently linked with moves to the Middle East or the US.
Lionel Messi is also 34 but, while many feel the Argentine legend has declined since his summer move to Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona, Benzema has reached his greatest of heights this season with Real Madrid and looks to be getting even better as he gets older.
Validation, should it be required, of the French striker’s current lofty standing among the world’s best players came in Real’s 4-3 loss at Manchester City on Tuesday in their Champions League semi-final first-leg tie.
Without Benzema’s inspiration and impact — and wasteful City finishing — the 13-time winners would have likely faced an insurmountable task in next week’s home return against the English champions.
Three times they had a two-goal deficit to overcome, yet they responded through Benzema twice and Vinicius Junior.
“I can’t explain how good he is,” said the Brazil striker, 21, of Benzema after he recorded his 41st goal this season and 13th in 10 Champions League games — nine in the last four. “He is my mentor and inspiration, helps me so much and I hope he ends up winning three titles; La Liga, the Champions League, and the Ballon d’Or.”
The first of those trophies will be confirmed on Saturday if Real claim a point against Espanyol. The second is in the balance, but the third is in Benzema’s grasp.
According to former Real team-mate Mesut Ozil, there should be no doubt. In a tweet, he said: “Give my boy Benzi the Ballon d’Or.”
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane — instrumental in Liverpool’s drive for a historic quadruple of trophies this season — and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski may well disagree, but Benzema is a deserved favorite.
Labelled arrogant and lazy in the past while trying to establish himself at Real and in the French national team, the Lyon-born forward has endured battles to prove his worth — and salvage his reputation too after an unsavory blackmail court case involving former France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena that dated back to 2015.
Benzema has appealed a suspended one-year jail sentence and remained focused on football, where his growing maturity has been reflected through his performances.
The only arrogance he displayed on the pitch at the Etihad was an impudent “Panenka” penalty to deny City the two-goal advantage their efforts merited.
It followed two missed spot-kicks in a La Liga game against Osasuna last week.
Benzema, a Muslim of Algerian descent, said: “All the goalkeepers have studied my penalties and I had to change. The penalty by me was cold-blooded.
“I always have it in my head that if you don’t take a penalty, you will never miss a penalty. That’s mental confidence.
“We lacked a bit of everything in this game – ambition, pressure, confidence. The most important thing is we never lay down our arms, we are all in this until the end. This is the highest level. We fell 2-0 down but were mentally strong to fight back.
“Now we have to go to the Bernabeu (Stadium), and we are going to do something magical,” he added.
Where Cristiano Ronaldo once proved Real’s savior, now it is Benzema as he has filled the frontline role admirably since the Portuguese icon departed for Juventus in 2018.
He is no longer the support act to Ronaldo or Gareth Bale in Madrid, but the headliner as he pursues a fifth personal Champions League title.
The game at City was Benzema’s 600th for Real since his arrival from Lyon in 2009 – putting him eighth in the all-time appearance list – and he now has 320 goals, just three shy of Raul as the second-highest scorer in the club’s history behind Ronaldo.
Wearing the captain’s armband, Benzema has become a leader, lethal and legend and perhaps finally getting respect for his footballing feats.
Yet there was also another worthy Ballon d’Or candidate on show as Real and City produced a spectacular goal-fest that was gripping from the very moment Riyad Mahrez’s hip-swaying and quick feet created space for a sumptuous curling cross that Kevin De Bruyne headed in for the opener after just 94 seconds – the fastest ever in a semi-final.
The Belgian then set up Gabriel Jesus for the second in the 11th minute before Benzema’s hooked finish gave Real hope. Phil Foden headed in City’s third, but Vinicius Junior raced clear for a fine solo strike.
Back came Pep Guardiola’s side with Bernardo Silva’s blast into the top corner before Benzema’s audacious penalty eight minutes from time after Aymeric Laporte handled.
City captain Ruben Dias said: “Everyone is thinking ‘it could’ve been better, it could’ve been this, it could’ve been that’ but we just need to take the win.”
And with full-backs Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker in line for returns after suspension and injury, they will go for the win in Madrid too, playing with the same swashbuckling style, rather than the more cautious approach seen at Atletico Madrid in the previous round.
Guardiola said: “You have to be yourself and really be truly yourself otherwise you’ve got no option to win.
“That’s what I want to tell my players to do – don’t think about anything else, think about going to the Bernabeu and putting on a good show which could give you a victory.”
City’s greatest showman is currently De Bruyne – and if the criterion for the Ballon d’Or is individual brilliance, then he has to be in the frame too. The 30-year-old midfielder is the complete player, a prototype for perfection with his vision and adept both in attack – with assists and goals – as well as defense.
If he can lead City to their first Champions League title, De Bruyne may stand a stronger chance of recognition.
It is often argued the award does not always go to the right man – as was the case with Lewandowski in 2021 after the 2020 edition was abandoned due to the coronavirus pandemic – and to those at more illustrious clubs such as Real Madrid or Barcelona.
With Messi and Ronaldo out of the picture this year, De Bruyne’s ability and contribution to City’s exploits should be lauded in the same manner as Benzema and his peers.