Football Features

The three stages of Karim Benzema’s career, from Lyon wonderkid to “the hunting cat”

By Sam Leveridge, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 12:20, 19 March 2022 | Updated: 21:09, 24 November 2022

When looking back at the career of Karim Benzema, he seems to be a bizarre case of a centre-forward who peaked twice.

Much like the rollercoaster ride that has been his life and career to date, his goalscoring form peaked young, dropped down, and then ramped back up again.

That’s how he has earned campaigns for a Ballon d’Or at the age of 34, having conquered every trophy there is to win in Spain, as well as the most important cup on the continent. For a man with such talent, he was happy to spend the peak of his career in the shadows of one of the few men who could claim to be better than him. In an era of egos and superstars, Benzema bid his time, put in the dirty work and prepared himself to become a leader.

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Now, in 2022, he has that role for both club and country. Set to become Real Madrid’s club captain full-time in the summer when Marcelo moves on from the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, he is seeking to add a remarkable fourth La Liga title and a fifth Champions League crown.

Benzema’s career is one which has been divided into eras. From the brave and exciting talent that emerged at Lyon who didn’t know his place, to the “cat” who had to take a backseat in Real Madrid’s prime, and now the leader of a glorious new age.

The Lyon Wonderkid

Perhaps the way to best define Benzema is to use his own words. When breaking into the Lyon team as a teenager, youngsters on a mid-season training trip were asked to give a speech. As the likes of Michael Essien and Eric Abidal joked when Benzema stood up to speak, he said, “Do not laugh, I’m here to take your place.”

That came even before his debut for the first team, which came in January 2005, claiming an assist at the age of just 17. Already a man for the big occasion, his first professional goal would come in December of the same year on another debut, this time his first appearance in the Champions League.

Thrown in at the deep end when Florent Malouda, John Carew and Sylvain Wiltord all departed in the summer of 2007, Benzema stepped up to the plate by scoring a remarkable 31 goals in 52 appearances, earning him 15th spot in World Soccer’s list of the world’s best teenage footballers in 2017. He was sandwiched in between Franco di Santo and Marouane Fellaini.

He was already in hot demand as the brightest young talent in French football, and Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas wasted no time in putting a 100-million-euro price tag on his prodigy in 2008. “The first time I played against him, Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to sign him. He was speaking to him in the tunnel after the game and Lyon officials had to pull him away,” Rio Ferdinand later recalled.

Ronaldo’s Robin

When Karim Benzema rocked up in town in the summer of 2009, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, for an initial 35 million euros, some way off Aulas’ price tag, he must have known that life in Spain would not be easy.

In November, coach Manuel Pellegrini made it clear that the Portugal international was his first choice. It led to an unmotivated Benzema losing his golden touch, returning only nine goals in his debut campaign. “Karim reminds me of another case of a Frenchman arriving at the Bernabéu as a star, but with more going on in his head than on his CV: Nicolas Anelka,” wrote Pablo López for MARCA as he compared him to a man who spent only 12 months with the club.

The comparisons didn’t end there, and new coach Jose Mourinho was next up, speaking out publicly to explain how he felt about Cristiano not being available and having to start Benzema. “It’s like when you don’t have a dog to go hunting with, so you have to take a cat,” he said. Benzema later revealed that he spent an hour in Mourinho’s office demanding respect from his coach the next day. But he earned that respect on the pitch.

He assisted 47 of Cristiano’s 451 goals for Los Blancos, making him the man to provide the most assists to Cristiano in his career to date. Benzema would sacrifice himself, dropping deeper in the middle and allowing for Ronaldo’s pace and runs from wide to take the glory. His decoy runs became almost trademark, even if it robbed him of the chance to be a prolific goalscorer himself.

“I don’t believe that my role is only to score goals,” he told GQ in 2019. “Because you can score goals and your team might not win. You play football with your team-mates, not alone. I believe that football is about scoring, assisting and working as a team.”

Ballon d’Or contender

With Ronaldo departing in 2018, many expected Benzema to follow suit. Arsenal were among the candidates linked, while Napoli’s outspoken president Aurelio de Laurentiis famously said, “we’re not interested in him, he’s too old.”

With only five goals in La Liga the previous season, way below his xG of 13.97, the mantle was set for somebody else to step up in Cristiano’s absence. Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, and numerous big names were said to be the new hero of Real Madrid. But it was the man who’d been staring them in the face all along.

In the three full seasons to follow since, only Lionel Messi has scored more goals in a single campaign than Benzema. Now, finally, at the age of 34, he is set to win the prestigious Pichichi trophy for La Liga’s top scorer this season. With 22 goals in 25 games to date, he is only two goals away from equalling his career best of 24 goals in 2015/16. Across all competitions, his 32 goals are already the same number as his best ever season a decade ago in 2011/12.

His game has changed again. Alongside Ronaldo in 2017/18, Benzema averaged 2.1 shots per game, a figure which has soared to 3.9 shots per 90 in 2021/22. Where he had one goal for every 2.79 xG in 2017/18, he needs only 0.77 xG per goal this season.

And Benzema’s influence goes beyond his goalscoring traits. “He’s a fantastic centre-forward, but a fantastic leader too,” said Carlo Ancelotti of the number nine, after his hat-trick sent Paris Saint-Germain crashing out of the Champions League. “I never imagined him leading the dressing room, he was in Ronaldo’s shadow, but now he’s surprised us all,” added former Real Madrid player, coach and board-member Amancio Amaro.

To this day, Benzema is known by some around the Bernabéu as “the hunting cat”. With 309 goals to his name, he is Real Madrid’s third-top scorer of all time, behind only Cristiano and Rául.

Article produced by Sam Leveridge in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown