LONDON – Luka Modric has, by this stage, seen pretty much all there is to see. He has won four Champions League titles. He has played in a World Cup final. He has spent a decade at Real Madrid, embedded among some of the finest players of his generation. He is one of the finest players of his generation. He is, most likely, neither easily impressed nor easily surprised.
A little more than 20 minutes into the first leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League quarterfinal against Chelsea on Wednesday, Modric saw something that did both. He was standing on the edge of Chelsea’s penalty area, admiring the flight of the cross he had just delivered. He would have been pleased with it: a deft, clipped number, swirling away from Edouard Mendy’s goal, and toward his teammate Karim Benzema.
An eye as keen as Modric’s, though, would have recognized that the trajectory of the ball and the position of the player were not quite in sync. Benzema was a little too far forward, or the cross was a little too far back. It was out by only an inch or so, but few players treasure precision more than Modric; these things matter.
Still, all was not lost. Benzema had options. The most obvious one was to try to steer the ball low to Mendy’s right. Or, perhaps, he could try to replicate the header that had opened the scoring a couple of minutes earlier, one of such force that it had flashed past Mendy before he had a chance to recognize it. In a pinch, Benzema might even have time to bring the ball down, and play from there.
What Modric could not have anticipated was what followed. Benzema, leaning ever so slightly backward, nodded the ball gently, almost softly, back across Mendy’s goal. It hung in the air for what seemed like an age, drifting toward the far post. There was a moment of silence as Mendy, Modric and everyone else inside Stamford Bridge waited to see where it would land.
It nestled, at last, inside the post. As Benzema turned away, his smile broad and his palms open, to race toward Real Madrid’s fans, Modric still seemed to be frozen. He waited a beat, maybe two, before jumping, just a little, into the air, his arms aloft, a grin of disbelief on his face. Just occasionally, it turns out, Karim Benzema can even surprise Luka Modric.
In that, at least, he is not alone. The arc of Benzema’s career is, in truth, a little misunderstood. It is not quite right to present him as a late bloomer, a flickering talent who waited until the final few years of his career to deliver on his longstanding 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 years old when Jean-Pierre Papin – no mean striker himself, in his day – declared that Benzema possessed the dynamism of (the Brazilian) Ronaldo, the imagination of Ronaldinho, the elegance of Thierry Henry and the ruthlessness of David Trézéguet.
By the time he was 21, Benzema had come close to signing for Barcelona, and completed a move to Real Madrid. He would spend the first decade of his career in Spain scoring – on average – a goal every couple of games, the traditional watermark for elite strikers, and creating many more. Zinedine Zidane, his coach for a considerable portion of that time, variously described him as “the best” and a “total footballer.”
That he was not the star of the show, of course, takes no great explanation: He was playing only a few yards from one of the greatest strikers of all time, a forward who made scoring one in every two look quaint and old-fashioned and actually, when you thought about it, something of a letdown.
Benzema was perfectly happy about that. He willingly sacrificed his own strengths, his own ambitions, to help his teammate maximize his. In doing so, he ensured that no player, arguably, more than him suffered quite so much from the redefinition of the possible that marked the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The golden autumn that Benzema has enjoyed, then, since Ronaldo’s departure in 2018, is best thought of as a form of optical illusion: It is not that he shines any brighter than before, but that the blazing torch that for so long drowned every other point of light has departed. It is only now that it is possible to see Benzema in high definition.
What has emerged is an uncanny impression of the player that Papin described all those years ago. Benzema has become – has always been, most likely – a complete center forward, an entire attack made flesh, and yet even that undersells him. He is the player who makes this Real Madrid, aging and somewhat patchwork, a complete team.
The proof of that is simple. A couple of weeks ago, in his absence, Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid was overwhelmed on home soil by a resurgent Barcelona. That night, as it suffered a 4-0 defeat and the Bernabeu jeered and whistled its heroes, Real Madrid looked like what it was supposed to be: a team in the grip of an awkward and uneasy transition from one era to the next, half comprising a team that had its day and half comprising a side awaiting its chance.
On either side of that disappointment, with Benzema in the team, Real Madrid has overpowered an admittedly complicit Paris St.-Germain and now – more impressively, given the French team’s penchant for self-immolation – beaten Chelsea, the reigning European champion, on its own turf. On both occasions, Benzema has not just scored all three goals, he has been Madrid’s brain and its heart, its focal point and its cutting edge.
He is, almost single-handedly, a guarantee of Real Madrid’s continued European relevance. Ancelotti will, now, be confident of helping his team to a second straight semifinal in the Spanish capital next week – though he would doubtless disagree with the assessment of his Chelsea counterpart, Thomas Tuchel, that the tie was over – so long as Benzema is present. He is the one who makes it all work. Maybe that should not be a surprise. Maybe he has always been the one who makes it all work. It is just that we have only started to notice it now.