Karim Benzema waited a long time to ascend to the throne at Real Madrid, but now he is their undoubted figurehead, crown gleaming, sceptre in hand, ready for a royal visit to Stamford Bridge.
‘King Karim’ has become an icon, in a way that looked unlikely during most of the last decade, as his then-team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo lapped up the attention and accolades in Madrid.
Benzema worked tirelessly, often out wide, to service the Portuguese striker, the club’s all-time record scorer on 450 goals, and only after Ronaldo departed to Juventus in 2018, did his chance come.
And the French forward grasped it cleanly, becoming "the best striker in the world", according to his coach Carlo Ancelotti, and a front-runner for the Ballon d’Or in 2022.
Benzema leads the scoring charts in Spain with 24 goals, 10 ahead of Juanmi, Raul de Tomas, Enes Unal and team-mate Vinicius Junior, who are tied in second place.
His strikes have handed Madrid an almost unassailable 12-point lead at the top of the table, with eight games remaining.
The striker made an impressive comeback on the international stage during last summer’s European Championships too and will be key for France at the Qatar World Cup in the winter.
The day after the final, on December 19, he will turn 35, which makes his form all the more remarkable. At a time when most players are winding down, he is still going from strength to strength.
At the weekend, his brace from the penalty spot helped Madrid stave off Celta Vigo and maintain their lead at the top of La Liga, while his greatest individual moment came in March, against Paris Saint-Germain at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Benzema’s spectacular 17-minute hat-trick helped Real Madrid come from 2-0 down on aggregate to dump PSG out of the Champions League in the last 16, with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe kicked to the curb.
The narrative around the tie had centred on the latter, with Mbappe looking likely to join Madrid next season after his contract expires, even if reports in France have since suggested he could yet commit his future to the Ligue 1 leaders.
Mbappe had netted for PSG in both legs and was running rings around Los Blancos’ defence, but Benzema changed the course of the game completely.
If - or when - Mbappe joins Madrid, it will be alongside Benzema, rather than replacing him. Clearly, the forward still has plenty more to give, having spent too long in the shadows to renounce the limelight now.
Ronaldo’s presence held Benzema back as an individual, as is only natural, given the Portuguese striker’s quality in front of goal and the idolatry he enjoyed in the Spanish capital.
Benzema was tasked with supplying him and the Frenchman’s unselfishness and quality helped Ronaldo reach the heights he did, winning four of his five Ballon d’Ors while at Madrid.
The team’s astounding run of four Champions League wins in five years is also widely viewed as a Ronaldo-fuelled triumph, with Benzema just one of the stellar supporting cast.
He played the role to perfection, though, and without complaints, an understated asset who has outlasted eight Real Madrid managers since arriving at the club in 2009 (Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho, Ancelotti in his first spell, Rafael Benitez, Julen Lopetegui, Santiago Solari, and two Zinedine Zidane reigns).
The key to Benzema’s longevity at Madrid and the way he has naturally assumed the role of the team’s ‘killer’ now is his adaptability and flexible mindset.Getty
“When Ronaldo played for Real Madrid, he scored between 50 and 60 goals a year,” Benzema told France Football in January. “So, you have to adapt to this reality.
"I had to move more on the pitch, give him space. When he left, what changed was that it was my turn to take over, score goals and provide assists to my other team-mates.”
While Benzema hasn’t quite matched Ronaldo’s perplexing scoring levels, he is a huge creative influence on the team and also leads the Spanish top flight in assists, with 11 this season.
Benzema is currently third in the list of all-time Real Madrid top scorers with 313 goals, behind the aforementioned Ronaldo and just 11 goals short of the legendary Raul Gonzalez.
Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Hugo Sanchez, Emilio Butragueno & Co. are already in the rearview mirror, and Benzema is not slowing down.
Were Benzema to have taken the 91 penalties Ronaldo had for Madrid, not to mention the 26 Sergio Ramos took at Madrid, he would already be the club’s all-time top goalscorer. Not that he cares.
“Apart from the statistics, besides scoring more goals, I don’t see what has changed in my football,” Benzema added. “I’m still the same player. moving, creating, playing one touch.
“We no longer take the time to look at what a guy does on the pitch, just at who has scored. And the next day, we consider him the best.
"It’s happened to me – if I don’t play a good game but I score, then they see me as the best.”
With the goals flooding in, the accolades have too. His interview with France Football was to celebrate him being named the best French player of 2021.
Benzema played an important role in helping his country win the UEFA Nations League in October last year, netting twice and being named man of the match against Spain in the final.
With his country, he is already forming strong links with Mbappe. At club level, his relationship with Vinicius Junior has also been key for Real Madrid and helped Benzema maintain his best form.
After the let-downs of Luka Jovic and Eden Hazard, Benzema finally found a partner he could trust in the Brazilian winger.
In many ways, Vinicius is helping to service Benzema in the way he once did for Ronaldo. Of course, King Karim is a benevolent ruler and takes just as much pleasure from teeing up his strike partner.
Their relationship started badly, of course, with Benzema caught criticising Vinicius by cameras at half-time of a game in October 2020, something Benzema claims was an assist of another kind.
“In just two or three comments, two or three movements, I showed him things, above all in the last 20 metres,” explained the forward.
“He had to take decisions himself, cross to assist and not just because, to look first, and he’s done all that.
"Now, he is Vinicius. I played with great players as a kid, I had to see them and get the information quickly. I learned to play with my head. Analysing the play of my team-mates.”
Flourishing as the team’s key attacking player and ably supported by Vinicius, who can provide the speed and dynamism to match Benzema’s sweet technique and outstanding vision, they are Madrid’s main weapon against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea.
The Blues dispatched Real Madrid last season in the Champions League semi-finals and were it not for Benzema’s acrobatic strike in the first leg, a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu, it wouldn’t even have been close.
"Two years ago, I think he was one of the most underrated players in world football," was Tuchel's assessment of Benzema ahead of Wednesday's meeting at Stamford Bridge. "But maybe not any more!"
Madrid are hoping for a different outcome than last time against Chelsea, but the man leading them into battle remains the same, and insists he still plays the same too, despite his crown and spot on the throne.