Karim Benzema: The case for the defence

Posted by Rob Train

Even during international breaks, Karim Benzema can't shake off questions about his form. Joining up with the France squad in Clairefontaine ahead of Les Bleus' upcoming World Cup qualifiers, the Real Madrid striker was again quizzed on the the long and acrimonious divorce between his boots and the back of the net.

Benzema has not scored for France since June 5, 2012, when he bagged a brace in his country's final warm-up game for the European Championship, a 4-0 home stroll against Estonia. That's 17 games and 1,200 minutes without bulging the onion bag. For a nation of France's dramatic tendencies, it's enough to bring tears to the eye as great Bleus strikers of yesteryear are fondly evoked and World Cup qualification hangs in the balance.

The fans are not happy, and have taken to booing their No. 9. The Bernabeu has been swift to follow suit, chastising Benzema for a perceived lack of work rate during Real matches. The Frenchman's every move at the moment is accompanied by the tortured strains of the theme to Jean de Florette. Benzema has yet to force his own destiny at Real Madrid, but there are mitigating factors that need to be taken into account, even if he was reassuringly expensive.

In his four full seasons at Real, Benzema has until now never been the first-choice striker, nor has he been played regularly with a partner despite his obvious assets as a support man. Manuel Pellegrini and later Jose Mourinho largely preferred a loan striker and in his first season at the Bernabeu under the Chilean, 2009-10, Benzema started 14 games, was substituted on 10 occasions and joined the action from the bench 13 times. The following season as a Mourinho charge he started 20, with 13 substitute appearances. In the one campaign to date he was given more than 20 league starts, 2011-12, he scored more in a single season than (the other, Brazilian) Ronaldo ever managed for the side. And he was still hauled off 17 times and started from the bench in eight matches.

His 91 goals in 193 official matches is far from a terrible record, especially taking into account his tag-team role with Gonzalo Higuain in recent years. During their shared time at the Bernabeu, the Argentinean had a strike rate of 0.54 goals a game. Benzema's stands at 0.47. Now that the Frenchman is first choice, he has to make up the shortfall. Alvaro Morata is one for the future, despite the understandable clamor from the more Madridista sections of the stadium. At 21, Morata is not yet ready for the starring role, but the Frenchman needs the competition. Benzema must seize his opportunity and he has the backing of Ancelotti and his staff, even if the Italian sided with the crowd recently in saying that the catcalls should serve as "motivation" for "The Cat."

Little wonder then that Benzema decided to bare his claws from the relative safety of the Paris suburb where France's players convened this week. "There are different types of striker," he said. "There are strikers who don't score many goals, but who contribute in other ways; I'm one of those strikers. I don't think about scoring, I think about helping my team to win. If I score, then great. But of course I should be scoring, you can't ask a striker to do the work of a midfielder." He also noted that despite the exhortations of the Bernabeu and the Stade de France, it is not his job to tear up and down the pitch in the manner of Angel di Maria, who Ancelotti had in mind when he commented recently that Real fans "applaud hard work."

"There are records that show I run over 10 kilometers per game. No one can say I don't work hard," Benzema said.

Under former managers with rigid playing styles, Benzema struggled to flourish as an out-an-out striker, but the 4-2-3-1 system requires a player that can read the runs of teammates. The Frenchman's tally of 52 assists for Real Madrid suggests that he is that player. And with a more flexible coach in Ancelotti, he may be given some support further forward when Gareth Bale is incorporated into the team. His link-up play with the advanced midfield players and his vision are something that cannot be easily replaced. He may not be firing on all cylinders at the moment, but Benzema is a vintage car in age of production-line endurance models. Nobody ever told Matt le Tissier or Teddy Sheringham to empty their tanks chasing pointless causes.

"It isn't my job to run back toward [Hugo] Lloris's goal," he said of his duties for France. "I pressure the opposition in the first line of defense, which is about 10 seconds." Neither should he be expected to try to match Di Maria's work rate for Real; even if Ancelotti told him to hug the wing on the halfway line the Argentinean would still career around the field after the ball.

Benzema was schooled in a different environment than Di Maria. At Lyon he learned his trade alongside famous workhorses such as Silvain Wiltord, Fred and John Carew. But there he also honed his spacial awareness and deft touch, which to tee up Di Maria's audacious rabona against Copenhagen brought those Premier League masters of support striking to mind.

As Benzema noted, he will score again. He hasn't done so for Real since Sept. 17, but in Real's current formation his support play is important whether he finds the net or not. There are goals throughout the team. Should he run around more? That is a matter purely for his detractors in the Bernabeu. But one thing is certain: With reports rife of Robert Lewandowski's move to Bayern hitting a snag, Radamel Falcao's apparent disillusion with his tax-free existence in Monaco and Sergio Aguero's stated desire to play for Real one day, Benzema needs to make his case for the No. 9 shirt water-tight sooner rather than later. Patience is not a virtue at the Bernabeu and January is looming.

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