This is familiar territory for Karim Benzema.
Yet, at the same time, it isn’t.
France have advanced to the round of 16 at the World Cup for the first time since 2006, going through as Group E winners. Didier Deschamps’ side have been without two of its best players: Samir Nasri, who was not selected, and Franck Ribéry, out due to injury. At the outset, there were whispers that a very good Switzerland side would end up topping the group, and some even pondered the possibility that les Bleus would miss out completely on the knockout phase considering the team’s inconsistency in this competition since winning it 16 years ago.
The former Lyon marksman is off to a blazing start in this, his first World Cup: three goals and two assists in three games. He painted an absolute masterpiece in France’s 5-2 shellacking of Switzerland last Friday: eight shots, five on target, six chances created, and a 96% pass success rate.
Benzema averaged less than three shots per game in La Liga this season, and less than two per contest in Champions League, as he played with two guys named Bale and Ronaldo. That tends to sap your shot totals a bit. But he’s been delightfully ultra-aggressive in Brazil, and this shot chart from the Switzerland game indicates as much. And how about that golazo?
I mentioned before that Benzema created a whopping six chances against Switzerland, registering two assists: one to Blaise Matuidi in the 18th minute, the other to Moussa Sissoko 13 minutes after the hour. The assists in GIF form are below, and they are dazzling; exemplary pace and vision on display, particularly on the Matuidi setup.
Against la Nati, Benzema played with flair and gusto, picking apart the Swiss defence pass by pass, each one fired off with pinpoint accuracy. One game earlier, he had taken matters into his own hands, overwhelming a tough and very physical Honduras side, potting two goals (and, really, a third) in a thoroughly dominant performance. Let’s take a look at how he achieved this.
Benzema’s heat map against Honduras broken down by flank once again reveals an aggressive #9, extremely active in slicing through a back line that allowed the third-most goals in CONCACAF qualifying. And man, did he slice: Benzema spent 64% of his time in the middle, managed 52 touches, and uncorked seven shots, three of which were on target. He was credited with two goals (one on a penalty), although it should have been three (GOAL-LINE TECHNOLOGY, Y’ALL!).
Finally, Wednesday’s 0-0 with Ecuador that put a stamp on France’s metaphorical qualification papers:
Again, Benzema was a relentless presence near and inside the 18-yard box, particularly on the left side. He attempted six shots (three on target) and created a further four chances with an 85% pass success rate, but France were unable to beat Ecuador keeper Alexander Domínguez. No matter, last 16 spot secured.
Now, here is what Benzema is forced into at Real Madrid. Take a look at this heat map from Real’s game against Valladolid from 7 May, a game which ultimately destroyed the Bernabéu side’s league title chances:
Benzema touched the ball 38 times over 77 minutes; his sole shot attempt veered off-course five minutes before the hour. He was mostly pushed further away from the box and to the left flank, disconnected from the attack, as Alvaro Morata was given a chance to rifle Real to victory (which, of course, he did not).
This is all part of a bigger point: Karim Benzema can thrive as “the man”. People forget this. He’s only 26, and he’s scored at least 17 goals in a domestic season four times since 2008, but since his move to Spain, he has been overlooked and underappreciated; it’s what happens when you play for a club with a no-holds-barred transfer policy and two superstar forwards. And on the national team, the headlines have been dominated by Franck Ribéry and the Samir Nasri saga–even though Benzema is ninth on the Bleus’ all-time scoring register.
For once, Benzema gets to take center-stage. This is his team now. For the first time since his final few months at Lyon in 2009, Karim Benzema is in charge…and if his masterful performances in the group stage are any indication, he hasn’t missed a beat.