Luka Modric has seen about all there is to see at this point. He has four Champions League championships to his name. He has performed in the World Cup’s closing ceremony. He spent a decade at Real Madrid, where he was surrounded by some of the most intriguing players of his generation. He is one of the most fascinating players of his generation. He is probably certainly neither impressed nor astonished.
Modric observed something that did both slightly more than 20 minutes into Wednesday’s first leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League quarterfinal against Chelsea. He stood on the edge of Chelsea’s penalty area, enjoying the trajectory of the cross he had just delivered. He would have been content with it: a smart, clipped quantity drifting away from Edouard Mendy’s intended target and toward colleague Karim Benzema.
However, an eye as keen as Modric’s would have seen that the ball’s direction and the participant’s position were not quite in sync. Benzema was somewhat ahead of schedule, or the cross was little off. It was just an inch or two off, but few players value accuracy more than Modric; this stuff matters.
Nevertheless, nothing was misplaced. Benzema was faced with a decision. The logical choice was to try to direct the ball low into Mendy’s proper. Or, maybe, he’ll seek to duplicate the header that had opened the score a few minutes earlier, one of such force that it zipped past Mendy before he had a chance to register it. Benzema may even have time to carry the ball down the field and play from there in a pinch.
Modric could not have expected what occurred. Leaning ever so little backward, Benzema nodded the ball gently, almost softly, throughout Mendy’s target. It hovered in the air for what seemed an eternity, moving toward the distant put up. There was a brief moment of stillness as Mendy, Modric, and the rest of the Stamford Bridge crowd waited to see where the ball would fall.
It eventually became ensconced inside the put up. Modric looked to be stuck as Benzema turned away, his grin big and his hands outstretched, to sprint towards Actual Madrid’s supporters. He paused for a beat, possibly two, before jumping briefly into the air, his arms outstretched and a look of incredulity on his face. Occasionally, it seems, Karim Benzema may even surprise Luka Modric.
At the very least, he is not alone in this. The trajectory of Benzema’s career is, in fact, rather misinterpreted. It is not quite accurate to portray him as a late bloomer, a fading talent who waited until the last few years of his career to fulfil a long-standing promise, to teach others how to profit from his products.
Benzema has always been clearly, extravagantly, absurdly gifted; he was only 19 years old when Jean-Pierre Papin — himself no mean striker in his day — declared that Benzema possessed the dynamism of (the Brazilian) Ronaldo, the creativity of Ronaldinho, the class of Thierry Henry, and the ruthlessness of David Trézéguet.
By the time Benzema was 21, he had come close to signing for Barcelona and secured a move to Real Madrid. He spent the first decade of his career in Spain, scoring — on average — a goal every couple of games, the industry standard for great attackers, and creating several others. Zinedine Zidane, who coached him for a significant amount of that time, referred to him alternately as “one of the finest” and a “complete player.”
After all, he was not the star of the show: he was only a few yards from one of the greatest strikers of all time, a forward who made scoring one in every two appearance archaic and old-fashioned, and ultimately, a disappointment.
Benzema was absolutely content with it. He readily gave up his own abilities and objectives in order to help his partner realise his. By doing so, he guaranteed that no player, perhaps, suffered more than he did from the age of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s reinvention of the possible.
Since Ronaldo’s departure in 2018, the golden autumn that Benzema has adored is best seen as a form of optical phantasm: It is not that he shines brighter than he did before, but rather that the blazing torch that had previously drowned out all other levels of sunlight has vanished. It is only now possible to see Benzema in high HD.
What has evolved is an eerie resemblance to the participant Papin described years ago. Benzema has developed into — and very certainly has always been — a full heartbreaker, a fleshed-out attack, and even that undersells him. He is the player that transforms this Actual Madrid, which is maturing and becoming more patchwork, into a full team.
That is self-evident. Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid were thrashed on home turf a few weeks ago in his absence by a resurgent Barcelona. That evening, as it suffered a 4-0 defeat and the Bernabeu jeered and whistled its heroes, Actual Madrid appeared to be what it was imagined to be: a crew in the grip of an ungainly and uneasy transition from one period to the subsequent, half comprised of a crew that had had its day and half comprised of a facet awaiting its opportunity.
On both sides of that disappointment, Real Madrid has beaten an obviously complicit Paris Saint-Germain and now — more impressively, considering the French team’s proclivity for self-immolation — beaten defending European champions Chelsea on their own field. Benzema has not only scored all three goals on each occasion; he has also served as Madrid’s brain and heart, its focal point and leading edge.
He is almost entirely responsible for Actual Madrid’s sustained European importance. Ancelotti is now certain of guiding his team to a second consecutive semifinal in the Spanish capital next week — although he would likely disagree with Chelsea opponent Thomas Tuchel’s assessment that the tie was finished — as long as Benzema is available. He is the glue that holds everything together. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Perhaps he has always been the one who makes everything work. It is only that we have only recently begun to take notice of it.