Karim Benzema: From rough diamond to polished article
Karim Benzema has gone from 'cat' to attack dog at Real Madrid and cannot wait to get his teeth into England
Court cases, accidental collisions, nagging fitness doubts – the centre of England's defence has got nothing on Karim Benzema. In his first season at Real Madrid the French striker gained pounds, crashed cars and was investigated by the police.
But transformed by Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane and his own iron will he will lead France's attack against England next Monday in the Donbass Arena – the ultimate test of how well, or otherwise, Roy Hodgson has solved his defensive dilemmas.
"Benzema is France's one great player," says former French international Christophe Dugarry. He is also the one that almost got away.
Since France coach Laurent Blanc took over the national team, Benzema has scored and assisted more goals than any other France player. He was crucial in Real Madrid winning the league, scoring 21 league goals in 26 starts, but just two years back Sir Alex Ferguson's private assertion that he was wildly overpriced at €40m was looking like shrewd judgement.
He scored just eight League goals in 27 games in his first season, there were awkward interviews stumbled through in beginners Spanish, and embarrassing images of a yellow Lamborghini being towed away with its front wing stoved in after a second accident inside two months – he also hit a tree driving home from his first ever clásico.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez had bought Benzema to be the next Ronaldo but he resembled the great Brazilian in expanding waistline only as he comfort ate to deal with the language barrier and his niggling injuries. "In the dressing room the other players would speak and laugh together and, unable to understand, I would think: 'Are they laughing at me'?" he told L'Equipe recently. He was also embroiled in a French police investigation having been part of a group of team-mates accused of having had sex with an under-aged prostitute.
When Jose Mourinho turned up in July 2010, Benzema was the complete opposite of the Portuguese coach's archetypal centre-forward – timid, lazy and unreliable.
It was a fork in the road. He could have taken the easy path – the one that leads irrevocably downward. He had after all signed a six-year deal and there would be plenty more time for parties like the 22nd birthday celebration with French rapper Rhoff on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean where he and pals had been involved in that Lamborghini smash. His new manager helped him decide otherwise.
"Mourinho spoke to me the way a father speaks to his son," he explains. "In one of the first training sessions he asked me how I was in French and said: 'I hope you are going to leave the Benzema of last year behind'."
Mourinho was supportive as Benzema testified in the prostitution investigation alongside Franck Ribéry who will start with him in six days' time against England – neither was subsequently prosecuted.
It was not the first time Mourinho had taken a player to another level but the approach had to be different. Benzema was never going to respond simply to being told he was the best in the world. That might have worked for Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry (who will be marking him next week) but Benzema needed to be told he wasn't the best, and that he never would be unless he changed.
"If we revolved around you we would have to start training at 12 o'clock because you get here at 10 half asleep and you're still sleeping at 11," shouted Mourinho during one training session. "The public digs needled me to rebel," said Benzema. "They forced me to work harder. I apply myself twice as much as I did at Lyons."
The cries from the training pitch of "You're the first Karim, you're the first!" coming from Mourinho, clipboard in hand, had drummed it into Benzema that he had to be the first line of pressure; that his game was no longer just about scoring goals.
For the most part things fell into place. In December 2010 he scored his first hat-trick for Real against Auxerre in the Champions League with a header and a left and right-foot shot – his technique and natural ability have never been in doubt. But the mean streak was still missing.
Mourinho could be seen in the next match against Zaragoza furiously poking out both elbows on the bench in a gesture at Benzema who had failed to do likewise in the penalty area while sandwiched between two players, and as a consequence failed to score. He finished the season with 26 goals but everyone knew there was more to come.
At the start of this season he took to the hills on Zinedine Zidane's advice. Spending pre- pre-season in the Henri Chenot hotel and spa on the mountainous border between Austria and Italy, he followed a specially designed detox programme and worked on his stamina losing seven kilos. He outscored the rest of Europe's top strikers during pre-season and then in a record-breaking 22-seconds scored in the season's first clásico.
Madrid lost that particular battle with Barcelona but ultimately won the war and no performance was more important in their title success than an away day in Pamplona towards the end of the season when they beat Osasuna. They had lost the corresponding fixture the year before but Benzema was majestic and his Marco van Basten-style volley from a Cristiano Ronaldo cross was La Liga's goal of the season.
Mourinho had assigned club staff to help Benzema have a more stable social life and Zidane, in the coach's words, is like a big brother to him. "For me Zidane is the greatest player of all time. I can always talk to him about anything. Sometimes I go into his office at the Santiago Bernabeu. His door is always open and he listens to me and gives me advice on the way I'm playing," the player said.
Zidane, another Frenchman of Algerian descent, was leading France to World Cup success when an 11-year-old Benzema was starting out at Lyons. He and Mourinho, have helped polish Madrid's rough diamond. "If I can't go hunting with my dog then I will have to take the cat," Mourinho had said ahead of a game when first-choice striker Gonzalo Higuain was ruled out and he had to play Benzema – back in the days when he was still lambasting him, hoping for a reaction.
How did you turn the cat into a dog? Mourinho was asked in an interview with ABC at the end of this season. "The credit for his transformation goes mainly to him," he said.
"Zidane has supported him and I was adamant about certain aspects of his game. 'I don't accept it, you have to change,' I would tell him. But the biggest responsibility was on his shoulders. He has laid to rest the little ghosts of the past."
Donetsk in six days' time will be the test of just how far he has come.
* Karim Benzema has developed his game since joining Real Madrid three years ago, providing a career-high number of goals and assists for the Spanish side last season on the way to his first La Liga title.
Lyons (all competitions)
2004-05 0 goals 0 assists
2005-06 2 goals 0 assists
2006-07 7 goals 2 assists
2007-08 27 goals 7 assists
2008-09 27 goals 4 assists
Real Madrid (all competitions)
2009-10 12 goals 4 assists
2010-11 29 goals 6 assists
2011-12 35 goals 18 assists
M'Vila winning race to face England
The France midfielder Yann M'Vila is recovering well from an ankle sprain and could figure in his side's Euro 2012 opening game against England on Monday, coach Laurent Blanc said yesterday.
"M'Vila is getting better, much better," Blanc said, adding that midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who has a thigh problem, was also improving. "There could be a nice surprise."
M'Vila regarded as Blanc's first-choice holding midfielder, suffered the injury in France's 2-0 win against Serbia in a warm-up game last Thursday.
France play Estonia in Le Mans in their final warm-up tonight before flying to Ukraine the following day. Blanc's starting XI is expected to closely resemble that which will face Roy Hodgson's side.
Left-back Patrice Evra, centre-half Philippe Mexes, and to a lesser degree Samir Nasri, find their places under threat after some unconvincing performances against Iceland and Serbia recently.
Nasri was lacklustre in the 3-2 victory over Iceland but the Manchester City player picked up his form against the Serbs, particularly in a first half featuring some flowing one-touch football, and where he combined well with Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema.
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