When Real Madrid have needed a hero this season, Karim Benzema has been nowhere to be seen.
Usually, it has been Cristiano Ronaldo who has flown to the rescue. Last week, with Madrid’s Champions League hopes in the balance in extra time against Bayern Munich, he proved decisive with a clinical hat-trick at the Santiago Bernabeu to take his total tally in the quarter final tie to five goals.
On Saturday, Ronaldo once again played a key role. Madrid were labouring against Valencia in the capital in what was a must-win game for the home side following last week’s Clasico defeat to Barcelona.
The visitors missed two early chances – Santi Mina hitting the post in the first minute – before Ronaldo settled the nerves as he always does. His intelligent run from left to centre saw him dart in front of Ezequiel Garay to nod home a trademark header from Dani Carvajal’s curling cross.
It was Ronaldo’s 20th Liga goal of the season and incredibly the eighth straight year in which the Portuguese has reached that mark in league football.
At 32, he should be starting to slow down, but Ronaldo continues to score at an incredible rate. He now has 32 goals in all competitions, with a potential seven matches still to play between La Liga and the Champions League. He would have 33 goals had he not seen a 57th minute penalty saved by Diego Alves – the Valencia No.1’s record now standing at an incredible 26 saves from 53 penalties.
Ronaldo is being far more selective with his movements now. He no longer presses and runs from deep as he did in his younger days, and spends much more of his time in the penalty box – his first-half goal against Valencia the perfect case in point.
This offers a clue as to what his best role for Madrid could be from next season. Right now, Benzema is offering very little as a central striker. The Frenchman was unfortunate at the start of the second half in seeing a curling effort hit the post but all in all he is not doing enough.
He has yet to hit double-figures in La Liga this season and is on course for his worst personal campaign at the Bernabeu since his first year at Madrid in 2009-10.
On current form, Benzema should not be starting for Madrid. He has scored just one goal in the last month and five in the last three months. When you have the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio supplying you, this is a pitiful return.
Zidane has been too loyal to Benzema while unfairly penalising Isco and Alvaro Morata as they are not seniors in the squad. Morata, who replaced Benzema for the final 18 minutes against Valencia, has played almost half of the minutes of the ex-Lyon man across La Liga and Europe.
Despite this, Morata has outscored Benzema. The ex-Juventus star has 18 strikes in total and the best goals-to-minute ratio in the Madrid squad. His goals have also given Real more points than any other player.
It is no surprise that Morata is now considering leaving Madrid for good this summer but the smart decision would be to offload Benzema instead. At the age of 29, Real won’t get another chance to get a decent price for a player who is only likely to decline from now on.
Benzema’s impotence almost proved costly on Saturday as Dani Parejo curled home a stunning free kick with eight minutes to go to pull Valencia level. Once again, Madrid had failed to keep a clean sheet – the eighth game in a row they have failed to do so.
However, Madrid’s blushes were saved by Marcelo with just minutes remaining as he cut inside on the edge of the area to rifle home on his weaker right foot. Benzema celebrated on the bench by smacking his hands against the seats in front of him, probably partly in relief.
Real’s La Liga aspirations remain in their own hands - and they are firm favourites to win the title - but Saturday’s close-shave was the latest evidence that they should plan their future without Benzema.