You might have missed it at the time, but the starting lineup picked for Real Madrid’s La Liga game against Real Betis, an unremarkable fixture in the grand scheme of things, was Zinedine Zidane’s most significant of the season so far. With this team, which included Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale, a precedent was set.
Zidane’s side would go on to score five at the Benito Villamarin, claiming a 5-2 win at one of the most difficult venues to visit in all of Spanish football. It was a result that came on the back of the watershed Champions League win over Paris Saint-Germain, a game which was defined by the contributions of Asensio, Bale and Lucas Vazquez off the bench. The selection against Betis suggested Zidane had changed his strongest XI in accordance.
This mean there was no place for Karim Benzema, the French striker who has become a scapegoat for many this season. Many Real Madrid fans will tell you that Zidane’s faith in the striker has seen their side’s attacking line stagnate this season, that Benzema only serves to slow down and delay their play in the final third of the pitch.
Others believe Benzema’s contribution is more nuanced. They claim that the standard of his performances cannot be seen in his goalscoring record this season (he has just three La Liga goals to his name), but the number of Benzema advocates is dwindling. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a case for the 30-year-old.
Of course, Benzema has long been a target. It took him years to win over the Real Madrid support, with the Santiago Bernabeu crowd making a habit of jeering and whistling the striker in the early years of his career at the club. Eventually, he proved his worth, but the air of suspicion over Benzema’s role at Real Madrid never truly shifted. It has become overwhelming in recent weeks and months.
The starting lineup picked for last week’s game against Betis wasn’t just significant because of what it said about Benzema’s fading role at Real Madrid, but because of what it said about the role he could still have. While the Frenchman might have been omitted from the start, he still managed to find the net late on after making an appearance off the bench.
Indeed, Benzema could still play a part for Real Madrid in this second half of the season. Against Real Betis, he managed to exploit a tired and weary opposition defence, applying the finishing touches on a comprehensive win. This is where Benzema can still be dangerous, but from now on Zidane must use him as an alternative off the bench.
The Real Madrid boss mustn’t be fooled into thinking that, because of his goal against Betis, Benzema is back to his best. Zidane must build his attack in the second half of the season around Asensio, who has already reinvigorated Real’s frontline since his return to the fold a few weeks ago. He could be the key to a successful defence of their Champions League crown.
With Real Madrid already out of title contention in La Liga, trailing pace-setters and rivals Barcelona by a gigantic ___ points, Benzema will surely be handed opportunities as part of Zidane’s rotational approach. But when the big games roll around, when the stakes are higher, the Frenchman must be on the bench. Real Madrid, as a team, have moved on without him.
The positive thing, from a Real Madrid point of view, is that Zidane seems aware of how his side are currently better without Benzema. “No, I’m not worried,” said the French manager when pressed on the striker’s poor scoring record this season. “It is the situation we have now. We would like him to score. The other day against Betis he scored. Here he could not, but he has done many good things for everyone else.”
That is no longer enough, though. Real Madrid have match-winners throughout their squad, but Benzema isn’t one of them at present. Zidane must finally look past one of his old favourites to his side the best possible chance of redemption in the second half of the season.