Is Karim Benzema the best striker in Real Madrid’s club history?

Raul Gonzalez of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring Real's first goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Valladolid at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on April 12, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images) * Local Caption * Raul Gonzalez  (April 12, 2009 - Source: Denis Doyle/Getty Images Europe)

Raul Gonzalez of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring Real's first goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Valladolid at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on April 12, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images) * Local Caption * Raul Gonzalez

(April 12, 2009 - Source: Denis Doyle/Getty Images Europe)

Is Karim Benzema the best striker in Real Madrid’s club history?

Real Madrid Club de Fútbol, commonly referred to as Real Madrid is undeniably one of the most decorated clubs on the face of the earth. The Spanish giants have won everything there is to win, on countless occasions. With 33 La Liga titles, 13 UEFA Champions League trophies and 4 FIFA Club World Cup accolades to show for it, what else can a fan ask for. Their rich history is painted by some of the greatest names in the game of football that braced the white colors and terrorized teams in Europe, and beyond. Think of Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, Santillana, Hugo Sánchez, Raúl and the recently departed Cristiano Ronaldo who have all scored more than 200 goals for the club. In the midst of all this, there has been a growing debate about the case of French forward, Karim Benzema. Some make a claim for him being the greatest striker that the club has seen. Before disregarding this view. Let’s explore his journey.

 Joining Madrid as a youngster

As expected of the biggest clubs in the world, only the best players across the continent make it to the first team of the Los Blancos. Some have to wait until they hit their prime age which can be way into their late 20s. For instance, a world-cup winner in Zinedine Zidane, only captured the attention of Real Madrid at the age of 29 and moved to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in 2001. Such is the demand for quality at the club. Their blockbuster transfer policy targeting the best players in the world has since been referred to as Galactico signings. In the case of Karim, the forward joined Real Madrid from Lyon at the age of 21 in a deal believed to be in the region of $50 million. He had only managed to score 43 goals in 112 appearances which amounted to 4 French Ligue 1 titles. Unlike Zidane, he had no FIFA World Cup winners’ medal. This attests to Benzema’s talent as a kid which caught the eye of Madrid and allowed him to become the third most expensive signing on their books in 2009 only after Ricardo Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. No doubt, Benzema was privileged to join Real Madrid at such a young age.

Slow Start

Just like any player that joins the Real Madrid dressing room, Karim Benzema had huge shoes to fill. At the time, he faced competition from the club captain Raul Gonzalez, a striker regarded to be one of the best the Spanish National team has ever had. Also, there was a certain Gonzalo Higuain, the prodigy from the Real Madrid B team that was making waves and staking a claim for a seat at the big table. Really, Benzema had no right to ask for anything. In a total of 33 appearances, he scored just 9 goals compared to Gonzalo Higuain’s 24 goals in 44 appearances. Despite the marginal goal return, the then Real Madrid coach, Jose Mourinho had seen enough from the youngster to force club legend, Raul to the exit door. Consequently, Raul left the club the following season and the striking responsibilities were left to the pair.

How Benzema’s movement drew Chiellini out of position before releasing the ball to Ronaldo who slid it through to Dani Carvajal on the right flank. From that moment, you could tell this was a goal scoring move...
— Tinotenda Magiya, FirstTouch Africa

Evolution of Striking Role

Having followed football in the past two decades, one can witness the evolution of the game which has resulted in an increase in the demand of ball-playing abilities from all 11 players inclusive of the goalkeeper. In the present day, strikers are seen leading the press when out of possession and are pivotal in counter attacking football where their hold-up play is questioned and they are tasked with feeding the ball to the wide channels. Jose Mourinho was way ahead of his time and quickly noticed that Benzema was not just capable of fitting this role, but also maintain a fair number of goal returns. As such, Benzema had an edge over Gonzalo Higuain even though the Argentinian was more ferocious in front goal. For about 3 more seasons, the pair were used interchangeably with Higuain undoubtedly more efficient in scoring goals but he could never get it around his head as to why he was not a clear starter in the Real Madrid team. As a result, he gave up and left for Napoli in 2013, leaving the reigns in Karim Benzema’s hands. It is fair to say that Real Madrid have not lived to regret that decision considering the hefty $44 million sum paid by the Italian club for a player struggling to keep Benzema off the team.

Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their opening goal with teammate Karim Benzema (L) during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 25, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Oct. 24, 2014 - Source: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images Europe)

Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their opening goal with teammate Karim Benzema (L) during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 25, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.

(Oct. 24, 2014 - Source: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images Europe)

Complementing Cristiano Ronaldo

As established, Karim Benzema had outstanding playmaking abilities. His unselfishness on the pitch, often saw him drifting out wide creating space for Ronaldo to occupy the central positions where he created the most havoc from and scored unthinkable number of goals. In Ronaldo’s best years of his career, he was playing with Karim Benzema, the striker that sacrificed a lot for the Portuguese international to achieve greatness and earn a mention among the talk of the best players of all time. Take a moment to reflect on Ronaldo’s opener in the UEFA Champions League final against Juventus in 2017. How Benzema’s movement drew Chiellini out of position before releasing the ball to Ronaldo who slid it through to Dani Carvajal on the right flank. From that moment, you could tell this was a goal scoring move as the Juventus defence was left confused as to whom will receive the final pass in the box. Benzema drew another defender in Barzagli. In the end, Ronaldo tapped home the goal from the edge of the edge of the eighteen area and sped off to the corner flag for his trademark goal celebration. We saw this on several occasions. The pair stroke up a devastating partnership which saw Ronaldo finishing off most of the moves and Benzema being hailed the master or genius behind the goals. Apart from that, one also ought to consider his defensive contribution in the new shape Madrid team especially in the absence of Gareth Bale. Cristiano Ronaldo was the only player free of defensive duties in the Real Madrid team which meant that his partner had to do most of the dirty work. Benzema covered the ground in tight matches like the El Classicos where Barcelona had most of the possession and the Los Blancos had to do a lot of chasing. All this he did knowing that if he could manage to thread through just one ball in between the lines to Ronaldo, he was the only player who could turn half a chance into a goal. Therefore, Benzema adapted his game to bring out the best in Ronaldo. This adaptation should never be underestimated considering Benzema was an out-and-out striker capable of scoring goals on his own. In addition, the best players must have the ability to adapt to a situation and perform at any club. The likes of Kaka failed to live up to expectations partly due to the fact that he could not adapt his game as he was used to being the main man in his previous club. That said, Benzema should be respected for being able to adapt his game to suit the team and survive in the club for as long a time as he has done. A decade to be specific.

Karim Benzema of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Liverpool at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium on May 26, 2018 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (May 25, 2018 - Source: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images Europe)

Karim Benzema of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Liverpool at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium on May 26, 2018 in Kiev, Ukraine.

(May 25, 2018 - Source: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images Europe)

 Form after Ronaldo

Post the Cristiano Ronaldo era, Benzema is leading the line for Real Madrid with little competition for a starting berth. This season, he has managed to score a total of 31 goals across all competitions and is the second highest goal scorer in La Liga with 21 goals, only behind Lionel Messi. Karim’s finishing abilities had been doubted over the past 9 seasons when Ronaldo was there as he was doing more of the creating but he is beginning to show his natural skill which is to sag nets. With 5 matches to go, the Real Madrid forward is on course to outscore all the traditional forwards in the league, i.e. the number 9s, precisely what is expected of strikers at Real Madrid.

The Accolades

The talk of the best in modern day football involves the individual contribution and the collective achievements won by the players. The debate about Messi and Ronaldo boils down to Ballon d’Ors and UEFA Champions League crowns. Although Benzema is yet to win the Ballon d’Or, he has done the most in winning everything winnable at club level. The table below shows Benzema’s achievements in comparison with other Real Madrid players in his position.

Name UEFA Champs La Liga FIFA Club WC Total Accolades

Benzema 4 2 4 10

Di Stefano 5 8 1 14

Raul 3 6 2 11

To date, Benzema has a total of 10 major trophies just 4 shy of Di Stefano’s achievements. This is promising for the striker who has just turned 31. He looks indispensable at the heart of the front line and with Zidane returning to the club, his fortunes look promising. Furthermore, the eras in which these players played for Madrid is different. Di Stefano and Raul were privileged to play in an era when Real Madrid was dominating domestically. The level of competition from the rivals was not as stiff as of the present day. That said, Benzema is at a disadvantage and has to inspire his team to change the narrative.

 Individual Stats

The most interesting part for some. The numbers that reflect the individual’s contribution to the game.

Name Goals Scored No. of Appearances

Benzema 222 462

Di Stefano 323 741

Raul 308 396

From this, it is evident that Benzema has the least compared to the rest. However, this does not take anything away from his individual contribution as he was playing with Ronaldo, and made sure that the player became the greatest goal scorer Real Madrid have ever had. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a record total of 450 goals in 438 appearances. Without Ronaldo, Benzema could have easily doubled his tally as long as he was given the respect his predecessors had when leading the team from the last third of the pitch.

Verdict

In conclusion, I think it is justifiable to consider that Karim Benzema is among the finest strikers that Real Madrid has seen. As established, his individual talent combined with his unselfishness on the pitch has had a ripple effect on the performances of other players like Ronaldo, and consequently, the team. Despite not playing in an era of dominance by the Spanish giants like his foes, he still managed to stake a claim among the greatest Los Blancos strikers. I think Karim has a good shout for being the best. What are your thoughts?