Karim Benzema Real Madrid
Karim Benzema has taken his game to new heights in the post-Ronaldo era at Real Madrid. Rodrigo Jimenez/EPA.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Cristiano Ronaldo had to vouch for his strike partner, Karim Benzema. In the eyes of many, including the majority of the notoriously tough-to-please Santiago Bernabeu faithful, the Frenchman simply didn’t deliver enough as Real Madrid’s first choice centre forward.

It wasn’t an argument without foundation. Over 32 La Liga appearances in the 2017/18 season, for instance, Benzema netted just five times. In contrast, Ronaldo scored 26 goals in 27 La Liga outings, but the Portuguese forward recognised the role his French teammate played in his own individual success.

When Ronaldo left, Benzema was forced to change his game. While he had more than proven his worth as a supporting act, the Frenchman was subsequently burdened with becoming Real Madrid’s primary goalscorer.

Now, it’s more than just Ronaldo who recognises what Benzema offers. His contribution over the past two seasons has been too obvious to ignore.

This season in particular saw Benzema take Real Madrid on his shoulders and carry them over the line to La Liga title glory. The 32-year-old netted 21 times in 37 appearances as Los Blancos snatched Spanish soccer’s crown off Barcelona’s head, but not even these numbers truly illustrate the influence Benzema had on the capital club’s campaign.

There is no shortage of top tier number nines in the European game right now, with Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane, Ciro Immobile and Erling Haaland, among others, all at the peak of their powers. But Benzema eclipses them all in terms of his overall game and the influence he holds at his respective club.

Benzema might not have the natural goalscoring touch of Lewandowski or the lightning pace of Haaland, but he is a far smarter and more efficient striker than either of them, or anyone else in the game at this moment. Kane, in many ways, has attempted to replicate Benzema in the way the Frenchman drops deep to link up play and spin the ball forward, but the Tottenham Hotspur man is still nowhere close to the 32-year-old’s level.

Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 shape simply wouldn’t work without Benzema. Frequently, he is both their playmaker and their goalscorer, with the Frenchman mastering the ‘Number 10-and-a-half’ role since Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus two years ago. With a more orthodox centre forward leading the line, Real Madrid would be more stilted, and ultimately easier to defend against.

“I know what a player Benzema is, everyone knows it,” Zinedine Zidane said in an interview last year, praising a player who has truly delivered for his team of late. “The number of goals he's scoring is incredible. I'm made up for him. What he's doing here, and the fact he's two goals away from his best-ever goals tally, says it all. Everyone can have their opinion on who is the best number nine in the world and for me it's Karim. He is confident, he knows you can always improve too, which is great. It doesn't surprise me what he's doing.”

And yet still some within the game refuse Benzema the credit he is so clearly due. They see an aging striker who, over the course of his career as a whole, hasn’t scored as many goals as perhaps a Real Madrid striker would be expected to. They see Benzema’s rise as a sign of Real Madrid’s gradual decline. If club president Florentino Perez had the money to spare, he would surely make a move for Lewandowski, Kane or another more obviously productive centre forward.

It would be incorrect to state Real Madrid have moved from the Ronaldo era into the Benzema era given that the latter is undoubtedly an extension of the former, but the Frenchman has influenced the setup of the team around him in much the same way his former teammate did for years. Everything at the Santiago Bernabeu right now is geared towards getting the best from the man in the number nine jersey.

Of course, the time will come when Real Madrid have to ease their dependance on Benzema. At 32, it’s reasonable to assume his fitness and physicality will start to fade over the coming years as he moves further into the twilight of his career. But few players have managed to age as gracefully as Benzema has. Strikers as smart and masterful as him don’t come along very often.