Mourinho's gripes bring Benzema back to life
French forward is thriving after a tough start at the Bernabeu. Lyons could suffer tonight
Wednesday 16 March 2011
Real Madrid will be back among Europe's top eight sides for the first time in seven years tonight with a home win or a goalless draw at the Santiago Bernabeu over Lyons, and regardless of second-leg heroes, Karim Benzema's contribution will have been massive.
He had only been on the pitch 40 seconds in the first leg when he scored Real Madrid's 65th-minute goal – their first ever in Lyons's Stade Gerland – and it is that strike which despite a late equaliser from Bafe Gomis leaves them in control of the tie.
Benzema has been told to wake up and toughen up by Jose Mourinho, and the signs are that he is responding to treatment. When Wayne Rooney threatened to walk out on Manchester United last October, Madrid looked a viable destination such was the despair at Benzema's lack of progress. But when similar headlines reappeared at the weekend, there was less conviction in the theory that Rooney could replace a player who has now scored 19 goals in all competitions this season.
Manchester United tried to sign Benzema in 2009. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted he was an admirer of the Lyons striker but when Real Madrid eventually met the £30m asking price for the talented but timid and slightly immature 21-year-old, Ferguson had no regrets. Madrid had overpaid, he said, and nothing in Benzema's first season and a half proved him wrong.
The Frenchman had scored 23 goals in his last campaign at Lyons and 31 in 51 games the year before, but in his first season for Madrid he hit the back of the net just eight times in 27 matches and just once in five European games. He struggled for a first-team place, was linked with a move to England on loan and when Jose Mourinho arrived at the start of last season his prospects seemed to have taken another nose-dive.
"If you can't go hunting with your dog then you have to take your cat," said Mourinho in December when he was deprived of the services of first-choice centre-forward Gonzalo Higuain, and therefore forced to pick the Frenchman.
He later claimed to be talking about systems, but it was clear from other comments about a lack of hunger and aggression that for Mourinho, Benzema was a pussycat alongside the dogs of war from his successful Chelsea and Internazionale teams – Didier Drogba and Diego Milito.
In January, Emmanuel Adebayor arrived on loan from Manchester City and Benzema's fate looked sealed.
But instead of being the death knell, the arrival of a fellow French speaker seemed to inspire a rebirth. Benzema's eight goals in his last six games mean he has 10 more than at the end of last season and even if he does not start tonight there will be a clamour for his introduction.
Just over 92 per cent of 22,000 Madrid fans who voted in a Marca poll said they wanted to see him start at centre-forward ahead of Adebayor. And if president Florentino Perez were picking the team (those were the days) then he would definitely start with the kid who reminds him of the Brazilian Ronaldo he signed in 2002.
Perez jumped to his feet and threw his arms in the air when Benzema scored at the Stade Gerland in the first leg – league titles and European Cups have been known to evoke a lesser response from the club's 64-year-old construction magnate. The will is there from top to bottom for Benzema to succeed.
Adebayor has been supportive despite Benzema being his rival for a starting berth tonight. "He is in great form, everything is coming off for him at the moment. He scored in the first game and hopefully he will score today," he said.
"It is true he has improved," admitted Mourinho. "And the first person responsible for this change is the player himself. He has even started working back and defending corners. He is giving me a very nice problem."
A master of getting the maximum from his players, Mourinho usually convinces his charges that they are world-beaters. The tactic with Benzema has been to openly criticise the lack of effort. "If we arranged things around you we would have to start training at midday because you are not awake when you turn up at 10 and you are still asleep at 11," he bawled at him in one training-ground rollicking earlier in the season.
That tactic may have been exaggerated to help him secure the loan signing of another striker. It is one that could have buried Benzema. But Mourinho suggests Zinedine Zidane – one of the reasons why Benzema wanted to sign for Real Madrid in the first place – has helped him become psychologically tougher and the good-cop bad-cop treatment is working.
"I work hard in training and I'm seeing the results," the striker said this week. "I'm back playing at my proper level. We know that it has been six years falling at this stage of the competition and we are only 90 minutes away from breaking that run."
And displaying some of that previously unseen maturity, and discounting the theory put forward by Lyons president Jean Michel Aulas this week that Mourinho will send his players out to look for the 0-0 draw tonight, he added: "Lyons know that they have to score but they will not lose their shape and they will not allow us any space. We have to go looking for the victory from the first whistle."
Real Madrid take on Lyons tonight attempting to reach the last eight of the Champions League for the first time since 2004. The La Liga side have gone out of the competition at the round of 16 stage in each of the last six seasons.
04/05 Juventus: 1-0 (h), 2-0 (a); Agg: 2-1
05/06 Arsenal: 0-1 (h), 0-0 (a); Agg: 1-0
06/07 B Munich: 3-2 (h), 2-1 (a); Agg: 4-4
07/08 Roma: 2-1 (a), 1-2 (h); Agg: 4-2
08/09 Liverpool: 0-1 (h), 4-0 (a); Agg: 5-0
09/10 Lyons: 1-0 (a), 1-1 (h); Agg: 2-1
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