How Karim Benzema evolved into Real Madrid's leader, thriving since Cristiano Ronaldo left

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In all the fuss made over Karim Benzema elevating himself to fifth in Real Madrid's all-time scoring list and Sergio Ramos' latest goals making him La Liga's most prolific defender, there's an important stat that has been given zero attention. But it also involves Madrid's brilliant French hybrid striker.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo left, abruptly, for Juventus in the summer of 2018, Los Blancos have won three trophies; it's foolish for anyone to try to claim that they've been a mess without him. However it's widely felt that there's a direct correlation between CR7 leaving and Madrid suddenly becoming mortal in the competition they've dominated in recent history: the Champions League. Nor were they, last season, even vaguely competitive in the race for the Spanish title.

Since Ronaldo packed his bags and added a new kit to his collection, there has been a suspicion -- and even some finger-pointing -- that Madrid's remaining players shrank in his absence, that they felt reduced without their longtime prince of the penalty box. The revolving door that has whisked coaches in and out has also made both Valdebebas and the Santiago Bernabeu hard, thankless, unforgiving places of work.

In 2018, Zinedine Zidane left, of his own accord, in search of regenerated energy after winning three Champions Leagues. From the Frenchman's point of view it constituted a little warning to his president, Florentino Perez, that: "If you want things your way, not mine, then you'll have to sail the ship without me."

Julen Lopetegui, pretty miserably, was in and out in a matter of weeks as his replacement, the Basque's opportunity to win the World Cup as Spain coach left in tatters. Santi Solari -- bright, articulate, modern, obstinately wedded to a set of clear playing principles -- arrived (and soon left again), asked to bail his club out of extremely stormy waters, cast aside as soon as Perez grew weary of being patient. Back came Zidane, initially to grave doubts about whether or not second comings were visionary or vexed.

Throughout all this, with the consistency of a metronome, Benzema stepped up to the plate. Despite a football club's version of chaos around him, despite suddenly playing an entirely different role to the "domestique" characteristics he'd adopted in order to help team leader Ronaldo flourish, despite massive new responsibility and pressure -- while surrounded by a midfield that was putting in some paper-thin performances last season -- the Frenchman has now amassed the superb total of 52 goals since he, and his club, said adios to their No. 7 nearly two full seasons ago.

I think this is remarkable.

Just stop there and think about it. Some strikers take three seasons to even sniff that total. Benzema did it in 93 matches, significantly better than a goal every two games on average. The fact that he has been in his early 30s for the majority of the period in question, and often having to perform as the sole "central" striker, tells a deeply significant story. Simply put, Benzema has been both mentally and physically in shape to take the kicking, the bullying, the pressure and the white-hot intensity of being Madrid's key goal scorer across what will be over a century of matches in two seasons.

Now look at the other stat that helps mark out which attacking players have "the right stuff" and are judged to be elite. On top of those 52 goals, this misjudged, underappreciated, suede-headed Rolls-Royce of a footballer has also thrown in 20 assists for good measure. Far from shrivelling under the pressure of no longer having Ronaldo's relentless demand for goals and victories around him on a daily basis -- never mind in big matches -- Benzema has treated it like a personal mission to show everyone at his club how to react to adverse circumstances. And if you'll allow me to focus on him in even more detail, you'll see only good things.

Over the past two seasons, Benzema hasn't had the benefit of a centre-forward worthy of the name either to help him, play off him, let him rest or take the burden of goal scoring away from him within games or during a period of drought for the Frenchman.

In their first season post-Ronaldo, Madrid fumbled around for so long in trying to add a striker that they ended up with Mariano, who managed three starts and a total of just over 400 competitive minutes alongside Benzema. How does this Lyon-born lion who grew up idolising the real Ronaldo (Brazilian, brilliant and better than the one who came next) react to such discouraging circumstances? By producing the second-best scoring total (30) of his entire 11-year stint at Madrid.

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This term, the Luka Jovic situation has been a joke. Benzema's employers bought a €60m striker whose modus operandi is a repeated flow of great crosses into the box from wide advanced positions despite the fact that Madrid, under Zidane, have a huge predilection for counterattack goals, long-distance shooting and nicely constructed one-touch/two-touch deconstruction of a packed opposition defence. It's not that Madrid never crash the ball in from wide left or right in the manner that a big, burly striker like Jovic yearns for -- it's just that this tactic would be one of the least identifiable parts of the Zidane-Madrid makeup.

The result? Jovic ends up feeling lost, thus slowing down his adaptation, such that his coach loses faith in him; Benzema is again stripped of a strike partner to win him extra space by tying up defenders, losing out on the option of juicy knock-downs or lay-offs from a traditional No. 9. As for Jovic being someone to score the goals that could take the pressure off Benzema when he's exhausted or out of form? Forget it.

All of which takes us to just one more obstacle he has had to cope with this season.

The odds were always good that there would be entente cordial between Belgium and France in Madrid's dressing room. Eden Hazard was born to play with Benzema. They get on well off the pitch: One a little more reserved and the other gregarious, living life with a grin and swagger, respectively. But the two share an idea that football should be beautiful, clever, dashing and fun.

Most of you won't remember when radios used to get bad reception, and you'd probably hear about 60% of your favourite new song as the airwaves crackled with static or the signal dipped out before bobbing back up. That's what it's been like watching the "Glimmer Twins" this season.

Hazard arrived in Madrid a little overweight, got injured and then, instantly upon return, showed he's 100% on Benzema's wavelength. It was about to "click" into something velvety and gorgeous before Hazard, through no fault of his own, was injured again. Now that we're all back to watching top-level Spanish football again, it's suddenly a thrill a minute listening to the pretty music the duo make together.

There was evidence against Mallorca. Hazard dropped deep from his new No. 10 role. He backheeled the ball from midfield, without needing to check his accurate mental snapshot that Vinicius and Benzema were brilliantly positioned. When the Brazilian pounced on the possession, what followed was a sensational one-two as Benzema controlled with one foot and sent a laser-guided pass into Vinicius' Olympic sprinter run through the middle of Mallorca's defence. That Vinicius hit the bar instead of scoring truly matters only to Madrid fans -- to the rest of us who love vivacious football, it was unashamedly beautiful.

Not that it bears comparison with Benzema's performance last week against Valencia, when he dominated the best match I've seen around Europe this season.

Having fed off Hazard's neat assist to break open an intriguing and balanced contest that was 0-0 near the hour mark, Benzema still had Spain's goal of the season thus far up his sleeve. After Marco Asensio scored a beauty of his own, celebrating his first competitive touch of the ball after a year out injured, the young Mallorquin took a raking crossfield ball from Toni Kroos; Asensio then clipped a hopeful chip inward toward Benzema. On the run, the protagonist of our story juggled possession with the top of his right boot over the intended interception by Hugo Guillamon, didn't break stride, observed the ball dropping just slightly toward his left foot and thundered a volley into the top right-hand corner of Jasper Cillessen's net.

I'm still convinced, even having commentated on it live, that skill of such gymnastic balance, at such speed and with milliseconds for decision-making, should pretty much be impossible for human beings. Robot-ninjas in some sort of computer-generated future, perhaps. As it stands, that football work of art should have its own dedicated gallery space in both the Museo del Prado in Madrid and the Louvre in Paris. It was that beautiful.

In summary, if Benzema is underappreciated, it's not because of anything he's doing. It's because those who fail to appreciate him should know better.