Pitchside Europe

How Real Madrid learned to love Karim Benzema


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James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos are Real Madrid's new signings exciting their already sated supporters, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale make up two parts of their much vaunted 'BBC' attacking triumvirate. The pair are Madrid's biggest stars, the men who received the most attention on the club's pre-season tour of the United States.

While Lionel Messi views new attacking arrivals as a threat, Ronaldo embraced Bale's signing and the pair get on well. Ahead of Madrid's defeat against Manchester United in Michigan last week, they sat together laughing in the players' tunnel, signing autographs for fans who had the money or good fortune for privileged access to the European champions.

But what of the third Madrid forward, French striker Karim Benzema? He wasn't in America as he was given a break after the World Cup, but he's become a key performer for Carlo Ancelotti's side and on Wednesday signed a new contract with the club.

It wasn't always so as Benzema initially struggled in Spain.

He was signed for €38 million in 2009, the same summer as Ronaldo and Kaka. Benzema fared worse than the more expensive pair. His body language didn't suggest that he was happy and he was publicly critical of his coach Manuel Pellegrini. Madrid were terrified that he was the new Nicholas Anelka - that is not a world class striker, but a surly, sulky French youngster who becomes a costly liability in the dressing room.

President Florentino Perez did not give up easily on the striker and began measures to assimilate Benzema to his new life. Whereas new signings Ronaldo already spoke Spanish and Kaka improved every week, Benzema started learning after four months. The club also encouraged him to move out of his city centre hotel into a more convivial atmosphere of his own home. Quite where the atmosphere came from is another point.

Faced with competition from the in-form Argentinian Gonzalo Higuain, club legend Raul plus Ronaldo, Benzema found himself on the bench with fellow striker Ruud van Nistelrooy– the patience of his coach seemingly exhausted after too many no shows.

Benzema bleated that teammates were ignoring him, that he was also being played out of position. Zinedine Zidane took him to one side and said: "you have to do more at this club". His attitude improved and helped his case that Higuain and Van der Vaart were injured.

Eight league goals was a poor return for his first season in Spain though, the 2010 World Cup was a disaster for everyone associated with France and new Madrid coach Jose Mourinho side-lined Benzema when president Perez and the influential sporting director Jorge Valdano were desperate for him to play.

Mourinho complained that training could not start until 10 a.m. because Benzema was “still asleep” and said he “could learn a lot sitting on the bench”. When Benzema played, it didn't go well. In one game deputising for Higuaín up front against Barcelona, he didn’t even get a shot on goal. Mourinho was exasperated with the Frenchman's sluggish character and his indifference to all advice or warnings and pushed to sign another striker. Valdano, who had signed Benzema, vetoed the request. It was a front for a power struggle.

When Wayne Rooney was linked to Madrid in 2010, a Spanish journalist put the Rooney question to Valdano, who replied that Madrid already have “two wonderful players (Ronaldo and Higuain) up front and they showed last season that they are able to score 60 goals.” He also mentioned Di Maria and Ozil, while stating that Benzema “had a lot to prove.” With his player underperforming, Valdano would eventually depart having lost the struggle with Mourinho.

Madrid's coach appeared vindicated with his glum assessment of Benzema, who scored just once in Madrid’s first 19 league games of the 2010-11 season. Benzema was as fascinated by rap music as he was by football. Some players shine thanks to the rage they have accumulated over the years, others because they are motivated by pleasure. Benzema was in the second category and his attitude clashed directly with Mourinho's ideas of mental aggression.

When Higuain became injured, Mourinho was asked if he wanted another no.9. and replied: "the subject of signings is something that concerns people who are higher up at the club. If I have to face the second part of the season with just Benzema it will be even more difficult. If you have a dog to go hunting with, you catch more; if you have a cat, you catch less, but you can still hunt. We only have one attacker, and that's Benzema."

If a following game, he followed Benzema closely, criticising his every move. At one point, he said: "This is a disgrace. He's not even a cat. He's a rabbit!"

Despite the problems, Benzema had an ace. The club president Florentino Perez adored him and had personally overseen his signing from Lyon, paying the €35 million after visiting his home and speaking with his parents. Benzema had the reputation of being a genius at youth level and had been talked of as a future Ballon d'Or winner while at Lyon. Perez was determined that he'd come good. And he did.

Madrid ended up finishing the 2010-11 season by winning the Spanish cup, defeating Barcelona in the final. Benzema's form had picked up and he was considered an important player.

In the 2011 Spanish Super Cup, Madrid's first goal against Barcelona saw Benzema and Ozil combine beautifully. Benzema became key to Mourinho's system as his leading striker in a 4-2-3-1. He'd receive the ball with his back to goal and play in Ronaldo or Ozil.

Central to Benzema's renaissance was his eventual understanding with Mourinho, who dispensed a tough type of love, encouraging Benzema to train and work harder in matches and combining that with a psychological boost that he could be the best striker in football. Former France coach Laurent Blanc was also a great influence.

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Benzema's stock would rise and rise. He scored 21 league goals in '11-12, 12 the season after and 17 last term when he played more minutes than in any season since arriving in Spain five years ago.

He's now a European Cup winner and arrived back in Madrid at the weekend looking lean after a break following a successful World Cup.

On Wednesday he signed a new contract which will keep him at the Bernabeu until 2019. The BBC are set to return in Cardiff on Tuesday for Madrid's European Super Cup game against Sevilla.

Attention will again be on another player, local boy Gareth Bale, but Benzema is fine shooting from the shadows.

Andy Mitten (on Twitter: @AndyMitten)

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