Football Features

Revenge against Chelsea holds the key for Karim Benzema’s Ballon d’Or dreams

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:27, 5 April 2022

Real Madrid are headed for a Champions League showdown with Chelsea.

The match is loaded with meaning for Los Blancos, as it’s a rematch with the team who eliminated them at the semi-final stage last year and also a match against the defending European Champions, a crown so often owned by Madrid themselves.

Most of all, however, this game is make-or-break for Karim Benzema and his hopes to win the 2022 Ballon d’Or. The Frenchman is in magnificent form and has been all season, claiming the UEFA Nations League back in autumn as Real Madrid launched a late push for him to win the 2021 Ballon d’Or.

That push was unsuccessful, but with Benzema’s outrageous form this season continuing into 2022, highlighted by his ridiculous second-half hat-trick to eliminate PSG and get Real Madrid into the last eight almost single-handedly, they will surely try again in 2022.

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Benzema’s quest to be acknowledged would be a beautiful moment of recognition for a player who has gone unappreciated for over a decade. For years he played second-fiddle at Real Madrid, sublimating his own attacking instincts for the greater glory of other players who reaped the headlines and history-making statistic as a reward.

But now with those individualists out of the picture, Benzema, the ultimate team player, is taking centre stage at Real Madrid. And the Ballon d’Or would be the perfect prize to reward just how excellent he’s been on that stage. Even his opposing manager this week has spoken about the recognised Benzema is finally getting.

“I said two years ago that he was one of the most underrated players in world football, he is not anymore,” Thomas Tuchel said of the Frenchman in his pre-match press conference.

Recently, France Football clarified the conditions for winning the Ballon d’Or, highlighting that players will be judged on their achievements of a season, and not a calendar year. For the 2022 award that season is 2021/22.

So far this season, Benzema has won the Supercopa de Espana and the UEFA Nations League. He’s all but certain to win La Liga as well with Los Blancos holding a commanding lead atop the table thanks mostly to Benzema’s 24 goals (second only to Robert Lewandowski in Europe’s top five leagues) and 11 assists (after just Thomas Muller and Kylian Mbappé). And those numbers are just the icing on top of a cake that is made of beautiful, free-flowing football that sees Benzema as the hub of everything good Real Madrid do. He is their everything.

That’s a very impressive case to win the Ballon d’Or already. But the two biggest trophies going in 2022 are still up for grabs. However, because of its placement in the winter, i.e. next season, the 2022 World Cup will only count for the 2023 Ballon d’Or.

That leaves the 2021/22 UEFA Champions League as the one thing that could clinch Benzema’s Ballon d’Or. And it really is make-or-break, because his main rivals for the individual trophy can still claim it themselves. Mbappé’s having an incredible season but with PSG’s capitulation and the World Cup falling into 2023’s award, he’ll have his eye on that prize.

Mohamed Salah and Robert Lewandowski, however, will be looking at the Champions League with hunger in their eyes. Lewandowski won it in 2020 and was injured during Bayern’s elimination last season; he hasn’t lost a Champions League knockout tie since losing to Salah’s Liverpool back in 2019.

The Pole is the only person with more goals across Europe’s top five leagues than Benzema and plays at the head of a fearsome Bayern Munich side. Salah, burned after his failures with Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup qualification, will be more than determined to bring the Champions League back to Anfield after winning it in 2019.

These are very possible scenarios, in fact one could argue the most likely scenarios given the strength of Bayern and Liverpool in knock-out football vs. how bad the actual best team in the world, Manchester City, are in such circumstances.

This is what Karim Benzema is fighting against on a macro-scale. However, the challenge directly ahead of him is Chelsea, the same side he failed to beat last season as the Blues knocked Los Blancos out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage.

The score was 3-1 on aggregate and could have been more, in truth Madrid couldn’t conjure much against the formidable Chelsea defence led by two masterful displays from N’Golo Kanté in midfield, swarming Benzema whenever he tried to generate any attack.

Of course, the Frenchman still managed to score a delightful effort from a set-piece to give Los Blancos hope for the second leg, but it wasn’t enough. Now, however, he returns in greater form, having somehow got even more impressive.

He returns to face the Blues having scored more Champions League goals than any human being bar Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. He returns to face the Blues with a frankly ridiculous eight goals in seven Champions League games this season. He returns with Vinicius Jr. finally coming of age and becoming a worthy sidekick to Benzema; the young Brazilian has scored 17 goals this season which is more than all three of his previous campaigns with Real Madrid put together. He is a devastating dribbler whose pace and intelligence turns him into a lightning bolt to be wielded by Benzema’s Zeus, hurling him at opponents and rending them asunder.

Moreover, Chelsea are not in the same formidable form they were last season. Back then, the Blues were marching through teams with Kanté leading the way (they lost four games after New Year’s Day 2021 and Kanté didn’t play in three of them).

Now, Chelsea are more of a stumbling presence, and Kanté looks nowhere near his best and brightest, playing just over an hour as Brentford tore them apart at the weekend. That’s not to write Chelsea off, they are defending champions of Europe, after all, but if ever there was a time to play them, to capitalise on their uncertainty, that time is now.

Benzema’s form could barely be better, either, despite battling through fitness issues of his own. He’s scored seven goals in his last five La Liga games. And the game he missed, El Clásico, saw Madrid torn apart 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu as they struggled to compensate for his absence.

Beating Chelsea is no guarantee of anything, of course, Real Madrid could still lose in the semi-final or even the final. But they have to get there first. Which means that if Benzema wants to have a hope at claiming the 2022 Ballon d’Or as just reward for his footballing excellence, he will have to guide Real Madrid to beat European champions Chelsea.

This is the way.