LONDON – Luka Modrić has seen almost everything that can be seen so far. He won four Champions League titles. He played in the World Cup final. He spent a decade at Real Madrid, listed among some of the best players of his generation. He is one of the best players of his generation. It is probably not easy to impress him or surprise him.
Just over 20 minutes after Real Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea on Wednesday, Modric saw something that achieved both. He stood on the edge of the Chelsea penalty area and admired the overflight he had just scored. He would be pleased with that: a deft, cropped number, a turn from Edouard Mendy’s goal, to his teammate Karim Benzema.
An eye as sharp as Modric’s, however, would recognize that the trajectory of the ball and the position of the player are not fully aligned. Benzema was a little too far ahead, or the cross shot was a little too far. He came out just an inch, but a few players value precision more than Modric; these things are important.
However, not everything was lost. Benzema had options. The most obvious was the attempt to direct the ball low to Mendy’s right. Or, perhaps, he could try to repeat the header that opened the goal a few minutes earlier, one of such strength that he flew past Mandy before he had a chance to recognize him. Ultimately, Benzema might even have time to drop the ball and play from there.
What Modric could not have foreseen was what followed. Benzema, leaning back slightly, nodded the ball gently, almost gently, back over Mendy’s goal. There hung in the air something that seemed like an age, hovering toward a distant pillar. There was a moment of silence as Mendy, Modric and everyone else at Stamford Bridge waited to see where they would land.
He finally nestled inside the pillar. As Benzema turned to the side, with a wide smile and open palms, to run towards Real Madrid fans, Modric looked as if he were still frozen. He waited for the blow, maybe two, before jumping, just a little, into the air, arms raised, with a smile on his face in disbelief. Only occasionally, it turned out, Karim Benzema can even surprise Luka Modric.
At least he’s not alone in that. Honestly, the arc of Benzema’s career is a bit misunderstood. It is not right to present him as a late-flowering, shimmering talent who waited until the last few years of his career to fulfill his long-standing promise, to learn how to make the most of his gifts.
Benzema has always been obviously, lavishly, absurdly talented; he was, after all, only 19 when Jean-Pierre Papin – himself a bad striker, in his day – said Benzema possessed the dynamism of (Brazilian) Ronaldo, the imagination of Ronaldinho, the elegance of Thierry Henry and the ruthlessness of David Trézéguet.
By the time he was 21, Benzema was close to signing a contract with Barcelona and had completed his move to Real Madrid. He would spend the first decade of his career in Spain scoring – on average – a goal every few games, which is a traditional watermark for elite strikers, and creating much more. Zinedine Zidane, his coach for a significant part of that time, described him in various ways as the “best” and “total footballer”.
That he wasn’t the show’s star, of course, doesn’t require much explanation: he played just a few yards from one of the greatest strikers of all time, a striker who scored one out of every second goal looked weird and old-fashioned and in fact, when you think about it, you have disappointed something.
Benzema was perfectly happy about it. He gladly sacrificed his strength, his ambitions, to help his teammate maximize his own. This ensured that no player, probably more than him, suffered so much from redefining the possible that marked the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The golden autumn that Benzema has enjoyed since Ronaldo’s departure in 2018 is best considered a form of optical illusion: It is not that he shines brighter than before, but that the glowing torch that has been choking every other point of light for so long is gone. Only now is it possible to see Benzema in high definition.
What emerged was the unusual impression of a player that the Pope described all those years ago. Benzema has become – he has always, most likely, been – a complete center forward, the whole attack has become meat, and yet even that does not sell it. He is the player who makes this Real Madrid, aged and a bit patchwork, a complete team.
The proof of that is simple. A few weeks ago, in his absence, Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid was flooded with Barcelona again on home soil. That night, as he suffered a 4-0 defeat and the Bernabeu mocked and whistled to his heroes, Real Madrid looked like it was supposed to be: a team in the embrace of an awkward and awkward transition from one era to another, a half that consists from a team that had its day and a half consisting of a party that was waiting for its chance.
On both sides of that disappointment, with Benzema on the team, Real Madrid outscored Paris Saint-Germain, who appear to be an accomplice, and have now – even more impressively, given the French team’s propensity for self-immolation – beat Chelsea, the reigning champions Europe, on its own ground. On both occasions, Benzema not only scored all three goals, he was the brains of Madrid and his heart, his center point and blade.
He is, almost alone, a guarantee of Real Madrid’s continued European importance. Angelotti will now be confident he will help his team reach the second consecutive semi-final in the Spanish capital next week – although he would no doubt disagree with his Chelsea counterpart’s Thomas Tuchel’s assessment that the tie is over – as long as Benzema is present. He is the one who makes everything work. Maybe that should come as no surprise. Maybe he’s always been the one doing it all. It’s just that we’re just starting to notice it.