LONDON — If this is not the best striker in the world, please show us the player who is superior to Karim Benzema. What a delight that would be; he must be a remarkable player who is capable of enhancing the performance that Real Madrid’s talisman has just delivered to break through a defense so famous for his stubbornness on nights like Wednesday night.
What separates the best from the simply great is their ability to repeat their brilliance. Nobody is as reliably consistent as Benzema on the biggest stage. There are plenty of strong contenders for the individual crowns coming at the end of the season, but what they have to argue against is remarkable. Two hat-tricks on the biggest stage that could have irremediably changed the qualifiers in favor of Madrid. First against Paris Saint-Germain, the Harlem Globetrotters of the Champions League, and then against the current champions of the competition, Chelsea. No one shines brighter in the midst of the galaxy of talent.
Similarly, it is hard to imagine how this Madrid team could aspire to contend for the Champions League without Benzema. That’s not to say they lacked quality on the night: Thibaut Courtois was stubborn amid a barrage of insults from his former supporters, Federico Valverde a presence throughout the action on the right and veterans Luka Modric and Toni Kroos could. to throttle the game when needed. That would have been enough to keep them in the game against a Chelsea side who, aside from Kai Havertz, were deeply disappointed. But it was Benzema who elevated Carlo Ancelotti’s team to a level that their rivals could not match.
Without a doubt, this is the best version of him that Ancelotti, his coach, has seen when the Frenchman had to submit to Ronaldo’s service. “Karim Benzema is getting better every day like wine,” said the Madrid coach. “He is more of a leader, more and more important in this team and squad and I think that is what makes the difference. He has much more personality, he knows that he is a very important player for us and he is an example for everyone.
“Benzema is a really complete player… not a striker, a player. He sure helped the team a lot in possession, movement, he’s always in the right position to help us.”
When it comes time to pick the highlights from the many, many highlights of Benzema’s festooned career, Wednesday’s pair of first-half headers will feature prominently. These were a magnificent cocktail of technique, power and vision.
You could hardly blame Edouard Mendy for not seeing the first one coming. Benzema stayed meters from the penalty spot. He couldn’t calmly receive Vinicius Junior’s cross, thrusting his hips forward at the last moment to lob the ball into the net. In a heartbeat he launched himself into the few hundred stars beaten by the madridistas. They could be dealt with weekly, but they could hardly believe what they saw.
Three minutes later, the entire field could see it coming. This time, Benzema’s touch on a Luka Modric cross seemed to hang in the night for an eternity, no doubt destined for the net. A sigh seemed to echo across Stamford Bridge, much admiration mixed with disappointment.
Men with 34 years on the clock aren’t supposed to contort their bodies like that. Perhaps this was a message to those of us who were chasing him up the age rankings for a couple of years. A second summer may still be on the horizon, that spell when you suddenly find yourself in your pomp, completely at ease in your surroundings, with a self-awareness that allows you to achieve what might have been impossible a decade before.
Because surely there was both a ball from Benzema and demonstrations of youthful strength. Few strikers have broken Chelsea’s defence, which is a master at stopping strikers from getting the ball into the box. In response, Benzema simply moved elsewhere.
Wherever there was a bigger gap between Thomas Tuchel’s three defenders and his two midfielders, Benzema would move provocatively into the middle, daring someone to leave his post. Jorginho kept looking over his shoulder, for all the good it did him. Thiago Silva’s tendency was to sink deep and wait for the race that would inevitably come, but in doing so he found himself without an advantage.
Take your eyes away from Benzema for a second and he would have vanished. As Madrid advanced down the right in an attack, it looked like he was going to stay close to Andreas Christensen, who had Vinicius Junior over his shoulder. Instead, he soon slipped into space ahead of Silva, who didn’t seem to notice. If the play had had a more favorable trajectory for his teammates, Benzema could well have been finishing the ball off the near post.
It certainly helped Benzema’s silent murderous act that Vinicius was so loudly present outside of him, his every touch designed to add to Christensen’s agony. When Tuchel retired him at the interval, it felt like an act of mercy, he himself would admit after the game that it was his fault that Reece James wasn’t taken deeper to offer protection.
This was the kind of performance that left Tuchel incandescent. He twice declared the tie dead, lamenting a team that has now conceded seven goals in its last two games. “We have to get our level back,” he said. “I don’t know where he is, since the international break. The first half is a repeat of the second half against Brentford. You can’t expect a result from this kind of performance.”
You’ll never know if your switch to a 4-2-3-1 might have changed the match and the tie. Seconds after the break, Antonio Rudiger and Edouard Mendy crossed paths. Benzema was ready to jump. Surely it is no accident that these goalkeeper calamities happen so much around the great man. He is invariably attentive to what is going on around him, prepared to escalate a nervous wobble in a moment of utter chaos.
There are very few teams that are more difficult to chase the game against than Madrid, masters at taking the air out of a game with a few good minutes of slithering possession. There were still chances for Chelsea: long-range shots that flew over Courtois’ crossbar and two headers that Romelu Lukaku failed to even hit, as if to further bolster Benzema’s reputation.
I really didn’t need the help.