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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Karim Benzema should be a Ballon d’Or frontrunner after the best year of his entire career

Benzema Ballon d'Or
Karim Benzema celebrates France’s Nations League Finals victory. Marco Betorello/EPA.

Coming just two days after he was announced as one of the nominees for the 2021 Ballon d’Or, Karim Benzema’s stunning equaliser for France in the UEFA Nations League final against Spain underlined the striker’s candidacy. It was a moment of true brilliance as the 33-year-old scored the kind of goal only he is currently capable of.

Fans of France and Real Madrid have come to expect such moments from Benzema. Most players, particularly attackers, are winding down their careers at 33, but he only appears to be getting better and better. He deserves to be considered among the frontrunners for this year’s Ballon d’Or, so why isn’t he?

Ask around and most experts and fans will point to Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi and Jorginho as the three contenders to get their hands on soccer’s most prestigious individual prize this year. Some might even mention N’Golo Kante, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe and Romelu Lukaku before they get to Benzema.

In fact, some bookmakers have the 33-year-old as low as 15th favourite to win the 2021 Ballon d’Or. This reflects how Benzema’s achievements in 2021 have generally been overlooked. The striker might not have got his hands on any silverware, at least not at club level, but his individual standard has been as high as almost anyone else’s.

Messi’s Copa America win, and his perpetually impressive goal record, has made him a popular pick for this year’s Ballon d’Or, but Benzema’s own record measures up well against the Argentine’s. While Messi has registered 38 goals (28 of them non-penalty goals) in 2021, Benzema has 34 (30 of them non-penalty goals). Both players have 14 assists to their name.

At club level, it could be argued Benzema has comprehensively outshone Messi. Real Madrid finished higher than Barcelona in La Liga last season. While Barça crashed out of the Champions League at the round of 16 stage, Real Madrid made a run all the way to the semi-finals where they lost to the eventual winners.

Benzema has had a direct hand in two goals in matches against teams in the top three of his league while Messi has still to register a single one. Meanwhile, Benzema has four goals against international teams ranked in FIFA’s top 10 in 2021. Messi, again, has none. The Frenchman is performing at all levels of the game for club and country.

Only Lewandowski (58), Messi (52), Memphis Depay (49), Erling Haaland (48) and Mbappe (48) have had more direct involvements in goals for club and country in 2021 than Benzema (46). The Frenchman is a one-man attacking hub and pretty much kept Real Madrid competitive on his own for the last year or so.

In the post-Cristiano Ronaldo age, Real Madrid have a lot to thank Benzema for. The Spanish club is currently going through a generational transition with the €600m redevelopment of the Santiago Bernabeu placing restrictions on what they can do in the transfer market. Eden Hazard is the only true ‘Galactico’ signed since Ronaldo left three years ago.

With the squad around him getting weaker by the season (this summer saw Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane become the latest to leave), Benzema has had to pick up more and more of the slack. Without him, Real Madrid wouldn’t have finished second in La Liga last season and they certainly wouldn’t have won the Spanish title the season before that.

It’s not just that Benzema is one of the best goalscorers in the European game right now, it’s that so much of Real Madrid’s play flows through him. He is a conductor in the way he dictates things for his team, club or country, in the attacking third. Only Harry Kane can compare to Benzema in this regard – both centre forwards are much more than just penalty box poachers.

Jorginho has been pushed into the Ballon d’Or discussion because of the success he has enjoyed with Chelsea (Champions League winners) and Italy (Euro 2020 winners) this season, but the award is meant to recognise individual accomplishment. If this still holds true, Benzema should be seen as a better candidate than Jorginho.

Criteria for winning a Ballon d’Or has never been truly laid out, but Benzema’s contribution over the last 12 months deserves to be recognised in some way. Widely considered one of the best forwards of his generation, he is repeatedly setting a new standard for himself. The sight of soccer’s most famous golden ball in his hands would symbolise this appropriately.

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