Karim Benzema underwent a metamorphosis at Real Madrid. “I’m not a cat any more, now I’m a lion,” he said after scoring the opener in a 2-1 win over Atletico back in March, 2011. It was the France international’s 12th goal of the calendar year.
Gone were the days when he used to pussy foot around the penalty area. Now Benzema bounded across the pitch at the Bernabeu and beyond as though on the savannah, losing the meoux and finding his roar. Behind this feat of feline transformation was coach Jose Mourinho.
For a time, it seemed there really was no limit to what this man could do. “I’m not Harry Potter,” he likes to say. Give over, Jose. Turn a cat into a lion? That’s no problem for il Mago. And besides, it was a trick he had to pull.
Over the winter his dog, Gonzalo Higuain, had just been ruled out for the spring after suffering a slipped disc. “If I can’t hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat,” Mourinho said. “With a dog you hunt more and you hunt better. But if you have not got a dog and you have got a cat, you hunt with a cat.”
The cat was Benzema of course. With a poke of the stick, Mourinho stirred the beast inside of him. Remember he’d considered changing the time at which Real trained because Benzema arrived “at 10 o’clock half asleep and then by 11” was “already sleeping again.”
With his pride hurt, this big cat began to show the claws he’d displayed at Lyon again. Benzema ended the season with 26 goals and scored another 32 the next as Real overcame Barcelona to win La Liga.
But then, certainly towards the end of the last campaign, the spell appeared to wear off a bit. The lion was gradually becoming a cat again. Though Benzema managed to score 20 goals, he seemed to suffer like many of his teammates did throughout Mourinho’s fractious final season.
His goal-to-game ratio fell by 30% to 0.41, down from 0.62 per match the previous campaign. Benzema was often played out on the flank, substituted, or left on the bench, losing the continuity which all great strikers require.
All the while – actually much much before – Benzema’s form for France has been a cause for concern back home. He hasn’t scored in 1155 minutes for Les Bleus. His last goals for his country came in a 4-0 win against Estonia in Mans over a year ago. It’s a worry.
So what happened?
Let’s break his senior international career up into two phases. Interestingly, 11 of Benzema’s 15 goals for his country came in the 32 caps he received between 2007 and 2010. Since then in his other 27 appearances, he has, to cite the analysis of Jean Pierre-Papin, “become more of a playmaker [for France] than a finisher.” There have been twice as many assists as goals: eight to four.
On the one hand, this is a virtue and speaks of Benzema’s all-round forward play. “His palette is extremely large,” wrote Bixente Lizarazu in L’Equipe. “He can dribble, play the final pass, put himself about… He knows how to do everything. Score too, but without hanging around the penalty area.”
On the other hand, France need Benzema to score. They have run dry in each of their last four matches, which were defeats to Spain, Brazil, Uruguay and a stalemate with Belgium. It’s now been 389 minutes since they found the back of the net, the longest goal drought since the last one between July 1986 and April 1987.
And yet France have a striker in Benzema with a reputation as one of the best in the world. Deserved or not, most people will agree Benzema is in possession of potential without equal among his nation’s other strikers: Olivier Giroud, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Bafetimbi Gomis and Loic Remy. That’s what makes his travails in front of goal for France so frustrating and perplexing.
Is it a lack of competition? Could it be because he doesn’t have the same players or movement around him when he plays for his country as he does on turning out for his club? Or is he just not working hard enough, a judgement at odds with his apparently selfless, assist-providing style of play? At the weekend, Real’s new coach, Carlo Ancelotti touched upon this. “Benzema was whistled, [Angel] Di Maria applauded. The supporters see the work. Work is applauded.”
What’s encouraging for France is that, although his attitude has been questioned, Benzema has at least started the season well with two goals and two assists in three games for his club.
Playing in a 4-4-2 under Ancelotti, he finds himself in the same system for France with the in-form Giroud as his partner. Familiarity with the formation – though under Laurent Blanc, Les Bleus also mirrored Real’s 4-2-3-1 – but also having someone to share the goal-scoring burden with might get Benzema scoring for his country again.
Yet should he fire blanks once more against Georgia tonight and Belarus next Tuesday, the calls for him to be benched will only grow.
Franck Ribery went a couple of years without playing well or being decisive for France in the build up to the 2010 World Cup and afterwards. He has since come through the other side, replicating his excellent club form at Bayern for his country. The hope is that Benzema, who wasn’t selected for that tournament, will do the same to get France to the next one in Brazil.