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Karim Benzema is Real Madrid’s past and present. Is he their future too?

Historically speaking, doubting Karim Benzema has been a bad move.

Some questioned if the 21-year-old signed from Lyon in 2009 was the right man to lead the Real Madrid attack; Benzema fought off competition from Gonzalo Higuain to establish himself as the club’s undisputed No.9. Others weren’t convinced he could fill the scoring void left by Cristiano Ronaldo‘s departure in 2018; Benzema promptly went on to deliver four consecutive 20+ goal league seasons.

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Some thought Benzema’s chances of winning the Ballon d’Or were gone when he finished fourth in the 2021 shortlist. Scoring 15 Champions League goals to fire Madrid to the trophy a year later made an inarguable case for him being handed the prize last October.

Now, in 2023, the doubters are back as Benzema’s injury-blighted season has people asking if it’s time for Madrid to move on. The France star is 35 and has been unavailable for 10 of 25 league games in 2022-23. He was (controversially) sent home from Les Bleus’ training camp before the Qatar World Cup after picking up another injury, and he’s on course for his lowest goal tally for the season since 2017-18.

Benzema’s status as an all-time great is beyond debate. Only Ronaldo scored more goals for Madrid, 450 to Benzema’s 341. But with the club looking to bring in a forward this summer, his automatic starting spot could come under threat. And so ESPN examines Karim Benzema’s future as Real Madrid’s first-choice centre-forward — this season, next season and beyond — and the impact he could have on this weekend’s Clasico with Barcelona.

With additional reporting by Julien Laurens and Rodrigo Faez

What changed from last season to this?

The 2021-22 season was the peak of Benzema’s imperial phase. If his performances in the three preceding campaigns saw steadily improving figures — with 21, 21 and 23 goals in LaLiga — this was something else. 27 league goals, a career-best return, outperforming an xG, or expected goals, of 24.38. 15 Champions League goals, also his best ever, obliterating an xG of just 8.37. His tally in all competitions: 44 goals in 46 appearances. Maintaining those numbers was impossible and perhaps unrealistic; a comedown to more human levels of excellence was predictable.

Benzema’s 2022-23 can be handily split into pre- and post-World Cup — the former was defined by his desperation to get fit for the tournament, and the latter by his desire to prove that he isn’t past his best — but in both cases, the headline figures are solid and, when put alongside last season’s, unspectacular. He’s scored 11 league goals in 15 starts, from an xG of 13.37, and found the net twice in five Champions League games — both vs. Liverpool on Feb. 21 — for a total of 18 goals in 27 appearances in all competitions.

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It’s worth noting that many of Benzema’s underlying numbers look little different from this season to last. In LaLiga, he is taking more touches per game (56.7 compared to 49.1), has a marginally better pass completion rate (87% to 85.2%), is creating more chances per game (2.2 to 1.9) and has the same xA, or expected assists, per game (0.2).

Benzema’s fundamental problem has been injuries limiting playing time. He’s suffered eight separate injuries this season, including a series of hamstring problems, with the latest ankle knock keeping him out of Saturday’s 3-1 LaLiga win over Espanyol. Combined with a slight reduction in his clinical finishing, swinging from outperforming his xG last season to underperforming this campaign, to paint a picture of a player in decline.

Sources told ESPN that Benzema blames his injuries this season on the amount of football he played the year prior: he managed 32 league games, 12 Champions League appearances, the Spanish Supercopa and Nations League games for France, all of it at the age of 34. The player argues that it’s inevitable that his body would suffer the consequences of that volume of minutes and expects to put his fitness problems behind him next year.

Will he get a new contract? What are Madrid’s transfer plans?

Benzema’s deal at Madrid expires on June 30, 2023, though that timeline is nothing new: Madrid tend to extend the deals of veteran players over the age of 30 on an annual basis, allowing both parties to reflect on how they’re feeling before deciding whether to stick around for another season. The influential quartet of Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Nacho Fernandez are all in that position right now.

Sources told ESPN that Benzema’s new contract has been all but agreed, with just the formalities, a signature and an official announcement required at this stage.

Barring an entirely unexpected change, Benzema isn’t going anywhere. He will be Real Madrid’s first-choice centre-forward and captain next season, regardless of the fact that he turns 36 in December. Both player and club believe that there is no reason he cannot continue to operate at the highest level in the short- and medium-term, but he won’t be alone in that department next season, as Madrid are looking at a number of candidates to diversify their attack this summer.

The club have accepted that the first team squad needs another top-level centre-forward, having opted not to move in the summer of 2022 given the lack of suitable candidates after Kylian Mbappe turned down the chance to join from Paris Saint-Germain. Two of the players being monitored are Dusan Vlahovic of Juventus and Tottenham’s Richarlison, although there are others.

The problem, however, is that being Benzema’s understudy has proved an unenviable task. Alvaro Morata was brought back to the club from Juventus in 2016, and moved onto Chelsea a year later. Mariano Diaz arrived from Lyon in 2018 and is still at the club, albeit barely playing, on a hefty salary. Madrid paid €60 million to sign Luka Jovic from Eintracht Frankfurt in 2019, though his impact was so limited that they let him go for free last year.

Looking further ahead, the Brazilian teenager Endrick Felipe, 16, will arrive in 2024, but the club will look to roll the dice on another Benzema alternative in the meantime. Benzema himself would be supportive of such a move, sources told ESPN, and believes that the squad would benefit from greater strength in depth.

The next challenge: keep the title race alive

With Barcelona nine points clear at the top of LaLiga, it’s tempting to say there’s no longer a title race to speak of, at least not a genuine one. But if Madrid win Sunday’s Clasico at Camp Nou, the gap would be slashed to just six points, a not insurmountable advantage with 12 games left.

Naturally, Madrid’s chances of a victory will increase substantially with Benzema fit and in the starting XI. His career record against Barca might not be overwhelming — 13 goals in 44 Clasicos — but his influence over these games in recent peak years has far outweighed those numbers. Still, there are no guarantees.

Benzema started the last Clasico meeting, the Copa del Rey semifinal, first leg, at the Bernabeu on March 2, which Barca won 1-0. He had an early goal disallowed for offside, but was otherwise quiet as Madrid failed to register a single shot on target. He scored Madrid’s late consolation goal in a 3-1 Spanish Supercopa final loss to Barcelona on Jan. 15, and the opening goal in a 3-1 LaLiga win at the Bernabeu on Oct. 16.

If you need an illustration of Madrid’s inability to effectively cope without Benzema, you can review last season’s LaLiga clash on March 20. Coach Carlo Ancelotti inexplicably fielded Luka Modric as the falsest of “false nines” around the penalty area in the Frenchman’s absence, though the void he left in midfield rendered Madrid’s attacking threat close to zero. Barcelona would go on to win one of the most one-sided Clasicos of recent memory, 4-0.

In 2023, Madrid’s most in-form forward has been not Benzema, but Vinicius Junior. The two forged a thrilling partnership last season, but haven’t clicked as convincingly this year. The pair’s ability to link up — and break free of the pressure applied by Barca defenders Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde in the Copa del Rey two weeks ago — could be decisive. Rodrygo Goes, another who loves to combine with Benzema when he drives infield and looks to swap quick passes, will also be important, whether from the start or off the bench.

The same is true of Federico Valverde and of Modric. All of them play their best football when close to Benzema, a uniquely selfless centre-forward. Despite his age, despite all those injuries, he is the glue that binds the Real Madrid attack together, which is what makes the thought of replacing him so daunting.

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