Karim Benzema’s future at Real Madrid might be put in danger by the arrival of Kylian Mbappe this summer, but he demonstrated once again why he remains essential to his team.
There was chatter in the press before kick-off that were Real to lose on Wednesday night, they would act swiftly to arrange and announce a formal agreement with the Paris Saint-Germain forward, but those talks will now be put on hold. We can expect that a deal will still be agreed in the coming weeks or months, but the urgency has been reduced following the French side’s astonishing collapse, and the 34-year-old striker’s incrediblecontribution.
In the early stages of the second leg, both the former Barcelona players impressed alongside Leandro Paredes, but it was Mbappe who dominated even before his first half goal. Mbappe stretched his rivals, he whistled past them at speed, and he toyed with them from a distance.
His goal demonstrated many, but far from all, of his qualities. Neymar pounced expertly to release his colleague down the inside left, but the 22-year-old showed remarkable poise to carry the ball at speed and then have the presence of mind to deceive Thibaut Courtois in goal, sending him the wrong way in a one-on-one. Not only did he send Courtois the wrong way, but he used the motion of the ball alone to construct a feint that was as artful as it was well-time
While Messi still retains deft touches and genius in his boots, Mbappe is growing into his abilities, and conceivably is the next player who we can expect to deliver at least a goal every game, and it is clear while Real Madrid president Florentino Perez regards him as the key signing to usher in a new era. Here is a marketable, brilliant, young and improving player who is already the leader at his current side.
But Benzema demonstrated everything you would want from a senior striker. When it looked as if his side were going out of the tournament, it was the Frenchman who chased down Gianluigi Donnarumma, forced a mistake, and was able to give his teammates a glimmer of hope – that was enough to set them on their way.
His second goal was the product of a relationship between Luka Modric and Benzema which is now a decade old, as the Croatian veteran picked out his striker, who span neatly to set up a position to fire home the goal to level the tie.
Benzema was not finished, rushing forward from the restart to show that his powers were not yet significantly diminished by age, and his poacher’s instincts have been sharpened with experience.
Facing what could be the arrival of not just Mbappe but also Erling Haaland, Benzema will know that he has to demonstrate that not only can he play alongside one of them, but that he is better than them both, if he wants to prolong his stay in the capital. The only way to do that was to deliver a match-winning performance, and while the rest of his teammates made that task far harder by conceding a goal, Benzema showed he was more than equal to the challenge.
Benzema has a year left on his contract after extending his stay last August for another year, meaning that the club could elect to keep him on for one more year. At the start of the match Mbappe might have looked at Benzema as the man who he would replace in the French national team, and then the man he would send packing in Spain. Now he might wonder if Didier Deschamps might look at the older player and wonder if he remains the player to lead the national side’s frontline, and he may even wonder how tough it will be to dislodge a player who is well into his thirties, but continues to deliver more and more astonishing blows to whichever opposition is in his way.