Karim Benzema the glue that holds Zinedine Zidane's 'phase two' plans together at Real Madrid

Real have a chance to put New Jersey nightmare behind them when they take on Atletico on Saturday

Karim Benzema has raised his game in 2019. Getty
Karim Benzema has raised his game in 2019. Getty

Eight weeks ago, in New Jersey, the behemoths of Madrid took part in a pre-season non-friendly that brought unexpected thunder and lighting to their summers. Ten goals were scored, seven of them by Atletico. A demolition derby, in which the familiar – Diego Costa was sent off; so was Dani Carvajal – mixed with the surreal: Diego Costa had already scored four times before his 65th minute dismissal.

August warm-ups, even ones that reach boiling point, are usually unreliable signposts to what direction a season will take, but by the time Real Madrid had conceded nine goals in their first five competitive games of 2019/20, the Atletico avalanche in the US looked an ominous forecast.

A week in September, though, can be a very long time. Real, thrashed 3-0 by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last week, will take on Atletico on Saturday guarding a position at the top of La Liga, a point clear of their neighbours.

Madrid have not sat alone at the summit of the table since they broke clear of Barcelona to clinch the title in 2017, 860 days ago. Yes, the season is only six games old, but at the club who were supposedly in freefall – they dropped four points in four games and conceded goals in each – it is at least a guarantee the word "crisis" will not be serenading Real into the Wanda Metropolitano stadium for this derby.

For Zinedine Zidane – the manager who oversaw that 2017 league title as well as three consecutive Champions League wins before resigning abruptly in March last year – the outlook for his second coming looks healthier. His repeated insistence, ever since the madness of New Jersey that “we know what we have to do and we will get there” now sounds sage.

Zidane does not have the squad he was led to believe he would be equipped with when Madrid’s president Florentino Perez persuaded him to return to his old job. But he does have a highly-tuned sense of how far he can rely on the so-called "old guard", and how to coax them.

Real Madrid's French coach Zinedine Zidane gestures during the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid CF and CA Osasuna at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, on September 25, 2019. / AFP / OSCAR DEL POZO
Benzema has performed well with Zinedine Zidane around. AFP

Madrid’s victories, on Wednesday and last Sunday over Osasuna and at Sevilla, left Zidane with several satisfactions. Neither opponents registered a shot on target. The back four ripped apart by PSG has been, almost overnight, transformed into a wall. The man responsible for that was Sergio Ramos who was suspended for the Paris trip. He is Captain Capable again, with a crisis to resolve.

Unlikelier allies include Gareth Bale who, during the US tour in the summer, heard Zidane urge him, brutally, to leave the club. Bale stayed, his two equalisers at Villarreal earlier this month kept Madrid unbeaten in La Liga, and though he collected a red card in the same evening, he has contributed enough to expect a significant part in the derby.

Most valuable of all to Zidane right now is Karim Benzema, a footballer with whom the manager has always had a strong relationship. They are French compatriots, both of Algerian heritage, and in the period when Zidane was embarking on his coaching career, as an assistant at Madrid to Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, Benzema benefited from detailed technical work with Zidane, often during challenging times for the player.

It wasn’t always a part of his game I viewed as a strength.

Coach Zidane on Benzema's record with headers

This is his 10th season with the club. Benzema has matured a good deal since; a year and half into his Real career, Mourinho labelled him a "pussycat" in unkind comparison with the "hunting dog" Gonzalo Higuain who was then competing for the central striker’s role.

What Benzema learned, gradually, was that the demands on any Madrid centre-forward over the past decade were not so much about who barks loudest but who has the right feline instincts to complement others. Cristiano Ronaldo dominated the show for all but the last 15 months of Benzema’s time at Real; by the time he left, Ronaldo was immensely grateful to the Frenchman’s canny runs, his knack of opening space.

Benzema has, discreetly, scored more goals than anyone in Spain except Lionel Messi in 2019; this while Madrid were often struggling. More pertinently, in the 15 matches he has played since Zidane’s return, he has 13 goals, five from five starts in La Liga this term.

Zidane sees a footballer who, at 31, is still making improvements to his all-round game. Eight of his goals of Zidane’s "phase two" have been headers, for instance. “It wasn’t always a part of his game I viewed as a strength,” Zidane admits. But it is something extra for Atletico to think about as they test out how far Real have truly got their act together since the nightmare in New Jersey.

Published: September 27, 2019 08:25 AM

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