The first time Manchester United fans acquainted themselves with Karim Benzema was during Lyon's Champions League tie against United in 2008. The first leg ended 1-1, with Benzema scoring.
He was only 21-years-old that season, and already a burgeoning phenomenon. He had pace, power and direct running, as well as sound technique - the key traits of a complete striker.
He was the closest thing to a prime Ronaldo football has seen since the Brazilian made his mark in the nineties. After the game, Sir Alex Ferguson praised the Lyon hitman, sparking many rumours United were trying to sign him.
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Many fans felt he would be the best man to replace Cristiano Ronaldo, who looked certain to leave for Real Madrid either in 2008 or the season after, which eventually did happen. Irony spoke, and Benzema ended up transferring to Los Blancos alongside Ronaldo as well.
In the 2007/08 season, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were pound-for-pound the best defensive duo in Europe. Both were in their primes. That game, Benzema appeared to have no qualms out-muscling and out-pacing them.
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When he ran, he looked down, and drove on like a rhino, with bodies staggering away. On numerous occasions, he went through the defence with not much resistance being offered by Vidic. It was Ronaldo-incarnate. That season, Benzema finished with 32 goals, becoming the top scorer in France and scoring four in the Champions League. Prodigiously talented.
Ronaldo was a player Benzema himself was inspired by, stating how he used to watch videos of him before matches."
"When I first came here I got to meet him, it was a dream. To me, he was the best."
"He did what others couldn't do. He had speed and technique, everything you can ask for in a striker."
His goal against Manchester United in 2008 will showcase how close the early comparisons were on the playing field as well, as he charged through the defence, drifted onto his left and found space to send a powerful shot away on his left foot at the earliest opportunity. To do that against the best defence and goalkeeper in Europe was awe-inspiring.
Unfortunately however, that talent was not properly harnessed at Real Madrid. Instead, Benzema has become a different shadow of his younger self.
What this article argues is that Benzema needs to become the main man again, for his true talents to shine and that time is running out for him to do so. At 27-years-old, he is now entering the prime stages of his career. A move away from Real appears to be the best way to let that happen.
That, in my view, will be the biggest incentive for Benzema to ever depart Real Madrid if there are no other problems. Moving to Real has seen him play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, who has since left, and now Gareth Bale.
Ronaldo is and was the main man, with Higuain very much a clinical box-finisher, scoring many tap-ins. Bale is now the deputy-in-line to Ronaldo. Benzema, amidst all this, has always the been second or third fiddle, seen as a 'supporting act', or a 'supplier' of goals, rather than a pure scorer himself.
He was never the certain scorer like Higuain, who was more of a fox-in-the-box. He was also never a wing-stormer, like Gareth Bale. Benzema was always more about the spectacular whilst at Lyon, the main-man role which became and remains the sole playing reserve of Ronaldo. Therefore, Benzema remained subordinate.
Do not get me wrong, Benzema has still scored over 20 goals a season in five of the seven seasons he has been at Real, with the highest tally being 32, scored in the 2011/2012 season. He is still a world-class striker.
However, he has more talent than that, yet due to this lower standing at Real Madrid, has not been allowed to develop individually as R9 was allowed to at Barcelona and Inter Milan. It was not that he necessarily should have been placed any different at Real either; there was no question the Portuguese superstar merited his crown as the main man at Real, as holder of the Ballon d'Or. Yet, despite this, Benzema having been so successful is both a testament and tragedy. He could have become so much more.
Had he gone to Manchester United, he would have been the main striker, and it is very much my argument that Benzema had the potential to be a 40 goal-a-season man. If he was scoring 32 aged 21, he had the prodigious ability to develop into an even greater striker, playing with a superior support network than at Lyon and the potential for his physical and technical attributes to develop. Instead, unselfishly providing assists and focusing on holding up the ball at Real has stagnated his own individual development of being a pure striking force, like Ronaldo was.
At Real, it appears Benzema is not allowed to make those driving runs. That is for Bale or Ronaldo to do. When faced near the goal, his view is to pass it to Cristiano to score. Yes, Benzema is praised for his intricate link-up play, assist-making abilities, deft passing and holding of the ball - clear centre forward abilities though they may be, this was not what one expected to see the Benzema of 2008 become.
Yes, we can also praise his selflessness, but you cannot deny it is almost as if he is strategically placed there to allow Ronaldo and Bale to shine. A makeweight, a pivot between the two weights of talent that lie in the left foot of Bale, and the right foot of Ronaldo on the scale of power. He is the conduit between the midfield and the big two, giving them possession and certainty, whilst they go about trying to do the Hollywood. Watch the Ronaldo goals, yes, even the tap ins, and you will see not see Benzema. Keep watching Benzema, and you will see Ronaldo's goals.
Yet, it is still frustrating for many to see that his sheer phenomenal force, outmuscling the best defenders has not been seen as much as it should have. Perhaps his role at Real has further caused him to plummet out of dissatisfaction. Benzema has also been criticised for being too lazy, slow, uncommitted and overweight - similar criticisms levied at the original Ronaldo.
Benzema still has moments of sheer brilliance however, he at times misses absolute sitters, a sign his striker's instinct has not been fully carved and that he lacks in full confidence. Over the past five years, Benzema is not among the very top of strikers. He is not at the level of Sergio Aguero, a prime Robin van Persie, or Luis Suarez or the Radamel Falcao of 2012. However, none of these players had anywhere near the goal-scoring prowess Benzema exhibited at the age of 21. Where he is placed in the Real set up is the main reason why. It cannot be said to be his fault either.
If Benzema moves to Arsenal or any other club, he can play as the main man, with Wenger's philosophy of pure footballing expression being very much his licence to kill. There may however still be questions as to whether he can still develop himself as a specialist striker after seven years of his supporting role.
Playing in the World Cup for France, showed glimpses of his individual ability. He was excellent, but not unplayable. Still, no longer needing to assist or supply as much, he scored three goals for France. He showed the confidence needed to take France to the quarters, where they were beaten only by the eventual winners, Germany.
France have an especially talented young team, full of world class potential at every area. At the upcoming Euros, in France, Benzema has one of his last chances to shine on the international stage and exhibit his individual prowess as France's main man, in his prime.
There is no guarantee Benzema will stay at Real after this season. Rumours persist of Real moving for Sergio Aguero, as they seek to topple the triad of Messi, Neymar and Suarez with a new name. If he moves on, he will surely go to a place which will guarantee him the right to be the main man.
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