Karim Benzema surpassed Real Madrid over Chelsea.

LONDON – At this stage, Luka Modric saw almost everything that could be seen. He won four Champions League titles. He played in the World Cup final. He spent ten years at Real Madrid, becoming one of the best players of his generation. He is there is one of the best players of his generation. It is most likely not easy to impress or surprise.

Just over 20 minutes before the start of the first match of the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Real Madrid against Chelsea on Wednesday, Modric saw what both had done. He stood on the edge of Chelsea’s penalty area, admiring the flight of the newly erected cross. He would be happy with that: a nimble, cropped number, twisted from the gates of Edward Mendy and to his teammate Karim Benzema.

However, an eye as vigilant as Modric would know that the trajectory of the ball and the position of the player are not completely synchronized. Benzema was too far ahead, or the cross was too far behind. It was only an inch or so, but few players appreciate accuracy more than Modric; these things matter.

However, not all was lost. Benzema had options. The most obvious of these was the attempt to direct the ball low to the right of Mehndi. Or perhaps he could try to repeat the blow to the head that had opened the score a few minutes earlier, with such force that she blinked past Mehndi before he could recognize her. As a last resort, Benzema may even have time to knock down the ball and play from there.

What Modric could not have foreseen was what happened next. Benzema, leaning back slightly, gently, almost quietly nodded his sword back through Mehndi’s gate. It hung in the air, seemed to age, drifting to a distant pillar. There was a moment of silence as Mandy, Modric, and everyone else inside Stamford Bridge waited for him to land.

He finally huddled inside the pillar. When Benzema turned away with a wide smile and open palms to rush to Real Madrid fans, Modric still seemed frozen. He waited a few, maybe two, before jumping up, just a little, into the air, raising his hands up, with a distrustful smile on his face. Just sometimes, it turns out, Karim Benzema may even surprise Luka Modric.

In this, at least, he is not alone. The arc of Benzema’s career is, to be honest, a bit misunderstood. It is not entirely correct to imagine him as a late-prosperous, flickering talent who has been waiting for the last few years of his career to fulfill his long-held promise to learn to make the most of his gifts.

Benzema has always been clearly, generously, absurdly talented; after all, he was just 19 years old when Jean-Pierre Papen – himself not an evil striker in his day – said Benzema possessed the dynamism of (Brazilian) Ronaldo, the fantasy of Ronaldinho, the elegance of Thierry Henry and the ruthlessness of David Trezeguet.

By the time he turned 21, Benzema was close to signing with Barcelona and had completed his transfer to Real Madrid. He will spend the first decade of his career in Spain, scoring – on average – a goal each pair of games, a traditional watermark for elite strikers, and creating much more. Zinedine Zidane, his coach for much of the time, described him differently as the “best” and “solid footballer”.

That he wasn’t the star of the show certainly doesn’t need much explanation: he played just a few yards from one of the greatest strikers of all time, a striker who made every second goal look whimsical and old-fashioned and really, if you think about it about it, something like a disappointment.

Benzema was very happy about it. He willingly sacrificed his strength, his own ambitions, to help his teammate maximize him. However, he made sure that no player, perhaps more than him, has suffered so much from the redefinition of the possible, which marked the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

The golden autumn enjoyed by Benzema, after the departure of Ronaldo in 2018, is best seen as a form of optical illusion: it is not that it shines brighter than before, but that the flaming torch that has so long sunk all the point of light departed. Only now can Benzema be seen in high definition.

There was a strange impression of the player, which Papin described all these years ago. Benzema has become – has always been – most likely – a full central striker, the whole attack has become flesh, and yet even this is his inexpensive. He is a player who makes this “Real”, an outdated and partly patchy, integral team.

The proof of that is simple. A couple of weeks ago, in his absence, Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid was crowded on the native land of reborn Barcelona. That night, when he was defeated 4-0 and the Bernabeu mocked and booed his heroes, Real looked the way it should have been: a team captivated by an awkward and difficult transition from one era to another. the next, half of the team, which had a day and a half, in which side is waiting for his chance.

On both sides of this disappointment, with Benzema on the side, Real Madrid have beaten Paris Saint-Germain, who are admitted to be complicit, and now – even more impressively – given the French team’s propensity for self-immolation – have beaten Chelsea. the reigning European champion, on his own lawn. In both cases, Benzema not only scored all three goals, he was the brain and heart of Madrid, its center and front point.

He is almost alone in guaranteeing the European significance of Real Madrid. Now Ancelotti will be confident he will help his team reach the second semi-final in a row in the Spanish capital next week – although he will certainly disagree with his Chelsea counterpart Thomas Tuchel’s assessment that the draw is over – until Benzema is present. He is the one who makes it all work. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Maybe he was always the one who made it all work. It’s just that we’re just starting to notice it.

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