Karim Benzema's Champions League heroics for Real Madrid are nothing new for him this season

Karim Benzema’s Champions League heroics for Real Madrid are nothing new for him this season

These days, there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and a special Karim Benzema moment in the Champions League. After scoring six goals in the group stage, the Real Madrid captain notched a hat-trick to eliminate Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16, as well as another hat-trick in the two-leg win over Chelsea in the quarterfinals, but his best may have been on display at the Etihad on Tuesday night. Though Manchester City won the semifinal, first leg 4-3, Benzema’s brace — including an remarkable “Panenka” penalty in the 82nd minute — has given his side more than a fighting chance.

It was another incredible moment to add to the long list of Benzema’s specials this season.

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His 41 goals (and 13 assists) in 41 games in all competitions have been vital to Real’s LaLiga title push, but it’s in the Champions League (14 goals in 10 games from an xG of 7.6) where he’s carried his team to the brink of the final. He’s outperforming himself: the 41 goals come with a 29.8 expected goals, while he’s managed 0.76 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes, 6.36 progressive carries per 90, 3.99 shot-creating actions per 90. To be fair, he’s been carrying his team full stop all this season, though with plenty of help from Thibaut Courtois and Luka Modric.

Tuesday night at the Etihad was maybe even more of a masterclass from Benzema than the second leg against PSG or the first one against Chelsea. With City leading 2-0 inside the opening 11 minutes, Benzema was the one who kept his team from falling apart. He was also the on-pitch tactician, urging his teammates to play higher up the pitch with him, show more aggression and pass with more verticality.

He then brought Madrid back into the tie with an impressive finish from an under-hit cross by Ferland Mendy. On the edge of the box, with his left foot, with Oleksandr Zinchenko defending tight and without even checking where he was in relation to the City goal, he slotted the ball with a first-time volley beyond Ederson’s despairing dive. The xG on the goal was 0.05; basically, nobody should score in that position. Benzema did.

At half-time, he was the one haranguing his teammates in the dressing room, down 2-1. He knew the Spaniards would get more chances, and, with City leading 4-2 thanks to Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva — they scored either side of Vinicius’ dazzling solo goal — Real Madrid won a penalty with eight minutes remaining.

In Madrid’s last LaLiga match, against Osasuna, Benzema missed two penalties in the span of seven minutes. Both times, he aimed to the goalkeeper’s right side and both times, Sergio Herrera saved it. He had also failed to score from the spot against Celta Vigo a couple of weeks earlier.

His response against City? Calmly converting with a delightful Panenka chip, sending Ederson the wrong way and cutting Real Madrid’s deficit to 4-3.

Why a Panenka? “Goalkeepers study how I take them. They do their homework, so I wanted to do something different. It was an ice cold penalty,” he told French TV. What’s even more incredible is that Karim Benzema had never tried a Panenka before — certainly never in a live game. It was yet another moment of genius from the French striker in Europe’s top club competition.

In some ways, this Champions League season has belonged to Benzema. His performances against Chelsea in a gripping quarterfinal felt almost inevitable. While he had to be patient in the second leg, with Chelsea leading 3-0 at the Bernabeu (and 4-3 on aggregate), his moment came in extra time.

After Rodrygo’s goal sent the game to extra time, tied 4-4, another clinical header from a Vinicius Jr. cross launched the Merengues into the next round. After his hat-trick in the first leg, Chelsea defended well in the second, which allowed them to claw back into the tie, but the Frenchman only needs half a chance to score.

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In that second leg, he had four shots, one on target, one goal with an xG of 0.3! He also had 25 pressing actions through the whole 120 minutes, more than in any previous game. Real were not playing well and were under pressure for much of the night, but Benzema never stopped running, encouraging and pressing. At half time, he was the one telling his teammates to keep fighting and to stay positive. After the third Chelsea goal, he was the one shouting that they were going to score and force the game to extra time.

Once he got home, late in the Madrid night on Tuesday with stars still in his eyes, there was almost just one thing on his mind: recovery. At 34, he looks after himself with maximum attention and care. Hijama treatment on his back (or “cupping,” where a therapist applies special cups on the skin to create suction and ease the pain), coconut water, physio work, ice baths, fitness work in his own gym at home: you name it he does it. Even during the month of Ramadan, fasting everyday (even on a matchday) from dawn to sunset, he still keeps working as hard off the field. This is also the reason of his success. The talent has always been there, lots of it. The intelligence as well. But the fact that, at his age, he is fitter than ever, and arguably fitter than 90% of the world’s best strikers, explains a lot of it.

His drive and ambition, faith and belief in his own ability as well as in his team’s success is remarkable. Because Benzema never stops to believe, the team doesn’t stop either.

“A defeat is never good,” Benzema told Movistar. “The most important thing is we never gave up until the end… Now we have to go to the Bernabeu. We’ll need the fans like never before. We’ll do something magical, which is to win.”



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Real Madrid’s objectives are simple: first, clinch LaLiga this weekend against Espanyol (they only need a point to make it mathematically secure) and then put Manchester City out to qualify for the final back home in France, where Benzema would have the chance to win his fifth Champions League, tying him with Cristiano Ronaldo for the most won by a single player.

“All I think of right now is winning LaLiga and the Champions League. This is my mindset. I am not thinking about anything else, not even the Ballon d’Or,” he added on French TV after the match.

So, will this be the year he wins the Ballon d’Or? As he explained to ESPN back in October, the prize is his dream. He was close last year and he is clearly leading the race for this season’s award. With the new rules and the Ballon d’Or now reflective of a full season and not a calendar year, he has a huge chance. His season is almost perfect so far. He will win LaLiga and be the player of the season there (he currently leads the goals and assists rankings), he is in the semi finals of the Champions League, he lifted the Nations League trophy with France after playing a big part in Les Bleus triumph in the semi-final and the final. He has some competition of course, with the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Mo Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Robert Lewandowski or Sadio Mané. But he is the clear favorite. And his legend grew a few more notches again on Tuesday night.


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