Liverpool would be forgiven for experiencing some sort of footballing PTSD when they face Real Madrid on Tuesday night. This will be the first time Jurgen Klopp’s side will have come up against the Spanish giants since the 2018 Champions League final, when Loris Karius cost Liverpool any chance of victory.
Karim Benzema accepted one of the two gifts from the German goalkeeper, sticking out an opportunistic boot to divert a Karius bowl-out into the empty net. Back then, the French forward’s role in the Real Madrid side was as a facilitator and supporting act to Cristiano Ronaldo. A lot has changed since then.
Three years later, Benzema is the main man at the Santiago Bernabeu. Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus in the 2018 summer transfer window created a goalscoring void in the Spanish capital and Benzema is the one who has filled it, scoring 74 times in 120 appearances over the last three seasons.
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Klopp and his Liverpool players will arrive at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano, where Real Madrid are playing their home games while the Santiago Bernabeu is redeveloped, with Benzema currently in the form of his life. Even by his high standards of the post-Ronaldo age, the 33-year-old has never been as influential as he is now.
Benzema’s header in the 2-0 La Liga win over Eibar on Saturday means he has now scored 11 goals in his last 10 games. Over the same stretch, that’s more than Kylian Mbappe (10), Erling Haaland (six), Ronaldo (eight) and Liverpool as a team (nine). No centre forward is as hot as the Frenchman is right now.
The most striking thing about Benzema’s form is that these goalscoring numbers only hint at his importance to Real Madrid. He is so much more than just a finisher, conducting much of his team’s attacking play. Without him, Real Madrid don’t just lack cutting edge, they lack purpose.
Most attacking players look to focus on certain areas of their game as they get older. Ronaldo, for instance, is now a penalty box poacher having been a speedy winger earlier in his career. Benzema is a notable exception to this unwritten rule, instead becoming a more rounded forward in his 30s.
Harry Kane performs a similar role for Tottenham Hotspur, frequently dropping deep to pick up the ball and spin it in behind. The difference is that while Kane has Heung-min Son to partner with, Benzema is largely left to do it all on his own. Eden Hazard was signed to be his Son only for the Belgian to spend the majority of the last two seasons in the treatment room.
As was the case in the 2018 Champions League final, Benzema could once again be a problem for Liverpool. Without Virgil van Dijk, the Reds might struggle to compete with the Frenchman, one of Europe’s most devastating headerers of the ball, in the air. Benzema is also known for finding space at the back post, where Trent Alexander-Arnold has been guilty of losing his man more than once this season.
Whether or not Benzema will have space to work in between the defence and midfield could depend on where Klopp deploys Fabinho. If used as a centre back, the Real Madrid forward will likely give Liverpool all sorts of problems - see how Fulham exploited space in transition in their 1-0 away win at Anfield last month.
Zinedine Zidane’s 3-5-2 system, which he has used to great effect recently, is designed to get the best out of Benzema. Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are all tasked with feeding the French forward as often as possible, as are the wing backs on both sides. The role of the secondary forward, usually Marco Asensio or Vinicius Junior, is also to serve Benzema.
This represents a flipping of the script from when Benzema’s primary duty was to supply Ronaldo. If Liverpool found the Frenchman a problem three years ago, they might not like what he has become since.
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