If ever an illustration was needed of Real Madrid’s dependence on Karim Benzema, it came this week. In the post Cristiano Ronaldo age, the 33-year-old determines more than anyone else at the Santiago Bernabeu, with two matches, both 1-1 draws, just five days apart proving this.
On Monday night, with Real Madrid desperate for an equaliser against Real Sociedad and with the French forward sidelined through injury, Zinedine Zidane was so short of options up front, he threw on Hugo Duro for the final 30 minutes. Duro, signed on loan by Real Madrid’s B team (Castilla), was never meant to be in the senior squad, but there was simply nobody else to lead the line.
Had circumstances been different, Benzema might have been given one more match to recover, but with Sunday’s Madrid derby a must-win, or at least a must-not-lose, match, the Frenchman was back in the starting line-up. From Real Madrid’s perspective, thank goodness he was.
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On the whole, the defending Spanish champions were second best against an Atletico Madrid team that should have been out of sight before the final 10 minutes. Yannick Carrasco and Luis Suarez in particular had opportunities to score only for Thibaut Courtois to underline why many see him as the best goalkeeper in Spain right now with a series of saves.
But as long as Real Madrid have Benzema on the pitch, they have a chance. It was clear throughout that the Frenchman was a long way short of full match fitness, with the 33-year-old even hobbling at points, but it was through his sheer power of will that Zidane’s side left the Wanda Metropolitano with a point.
Benzema equalised with his eighth shot, and his fourth shot on target, of the match. His goal was proof of his perseverance and of his final third productivity. Without Benzema leading the line, Real Madrid are toothless. Isco, Mariano Diaz and Duro have all been tried as deputies, but the drop-off has been stark.
“We know what Karim is. Not just the matter of goals. He is an important player for us in our system and especially when we have the ball,” Zidane explained before the derby, teasing a possible Benzema return from injury.
“He is special. What he does on the field... For people who like football, Benzema is a joy for football; for me, having him as a coach is a joy. He has been here for 10 years and has improved a lot. He is a fundamental player for us, for our team. He is a special player for all football fans, not just Madrid.”
This derby was a tale of two strikers and while Benzema saved the day for Real Madrid, Suarez will reflect on what more he could have done to secure victory for Atletico Madrid. The Uruguayan’s 17 league goals have played a big role in taking Atleti to their current position in the table, but there remains a sense he misses too many opportunities in front of goal.
Indeed, Suarez had two good chances to score a second having broken the deadlock after 15 minutes, but could only shoot straight at Courtois. Had he shown the sort of composure he displayed for his first goal, Atleti would have secured a victory to take them eight points clear of Real Madrid and significantly closer to the championship.
As it was, though, Benzema’s second half performance highlighted how only Lionel Messi can claim to be a greater difference-maker in La Liga right now. Without him, Real Madrid lack cutting edge and purpose. With him, they always have a chance of an equaliser or a winner in a game they barely deserve anything from.
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