Barcelona beware - Karim Benzema is back to his Ballon d'Or-winning best!

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Karim Benzema Real Madrid 2022-23
After starring in the battering of Real Valladolid on Sunday, the French striker is in top form ahead of Wednesday's Clasico in the Copa del Rey

It didn't take long for Karim Benzema to prove that he was back to his best. The Real Madrid striker had spent the first 25 minutes of his side's La Liga clash with Real Valladolid doing all of the Benzema things. He dropped into space, made runs into the right areas, and linked up with the midfielders.

Then, the Ballon d'Or-winning side of Benzema's game showed up.

His first goal was a striker's dart and header at the far post; his second a curled effort from outside the box; and the third was outrageous, a contortion of his ageing frame to flick a ball that was two yards behind him into the far corner.

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In exactly six minutes and 32 seconds, Benzema had come alive and secured himself the match ball.

And at the right time, too. His quickfire treble came just over 72 hours before Madrid's Copa del Rey semi-final Clasico, a game in which Los Blancos have to overturn a 1-0 aggregate deficit to book their place in the final against Osasuna.

In such a massive fixture, an in-form Benzema is the last thing Barcelona want to see — he is the key in sending Madrid to the final.

  1. An inconsistent campaign

    An inconsistent campaign

    An in-form Benzema has an aura of inevitability about him — all the great strikers do.

    It was what made him the world's best last year. In contests when Madrid seemed to be dead and buried — such as against Machester City and PSG in the Champions League — Benzema would strike. There was a fear surrounding him. You didn't know how or when Benzema would score. He just did.

    And it was this time of year when the Frenchman really got going. He scored 12 goals in his last 11 games from April 2 onwards.

    He bagged a hat-trick at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League quarter-finals, two at the Etihad Stadium in the first leg of the semi-final, and a third at Santiago Bernabeu to seal a place in the final.

    There was a handsome tally of league strikes, too, but knockout Benzema was a different kind of footballer. Indeed, when Madrid were seemingly on the way out of major competitions, he always seemed to deliver. It is rare that a player could be so consistent on a weekly basis yet so clutch when the pressure is on.

    From facing La Liga defeats to being on the verge of Champions League elimination, he kept on delivering at the right time.

    But those moments have become less frequent this season. There have been a number of games in which Benzema has been on the pitch, but unable to save his side. This is acceptable, of course, but shows perhaps a touch of humanity for a player who turned 35 in December.

    Benzema is scoring goals at a comparable rate, but the way he went about things on the pitch last season was radically different. He still does some of same things - the signature runs and the link ups with Vincius Jr - but that end product hasn't always been there.

    He missed chances against Real Betis. He was toothless against Barcelona. This player, often the epitome of unselfishness among elite strikers, had begun to look fallible.

  2. Injury issues

    Injury issues

    A series of nagging knocks certainly hasn't helped. Benzema has managed to stay relatively free of serious injuries in recent years, but this season, the odd ailment has cropped up. He has dealt with a hamstring problem, a hip flexor pull, and the general fatigue that comes with age.

    This is perhaps all understandable for a 35-year-old coming off an exhaustingly successful season. But for the best in the world, it's of slight concern.

    Indeed, for so many before him, the knocks that crop up in the mid-30s can be a sign of the decline to come. It wasn't a time to smash the panic button, but it will have raised a few eyebrows.

    Benzema isn't helped by the fact that Madrid lack a back-up striker. Brazilian Rodrygo has been charged as playing as a No.9 in his absence, but is more comfortable as an attacking midfielder or winger. Youngster Alvaro Rodriguez has shown potential, but isn't experienced enough to lead the line — especially in big games.

    At times, then, Benzema has been thrown into contests despite lacking match fitness.

    And a look at those patches in which Benzema has been forced to play numerous games in a row suggests his body is holding him back somewhat. Benzema went three matches without scoring — and missed some big chances — in a stretch at the end of February, for example.

    Madrid failed to win any of them, and only scored once. Incidentally, it's that patch that saw Barcelona open their La Liga lead to an unassailable double digits.

  3. The France fallout

    The France fallout

    In mid-November of 2022, Benzema showed up to France's World Cup camp in an entirely normal way. He posed for the photos for the team's social media channels, and was pictured laughing with his team-mates. Everything about his return was distinctly average.

    It was of little concern that he'd been struggling with an odd muscle problem. This was the World Cup, a tournament that France were among the favourites to win. Benzema, facing perhaps his last international tournament, would figure it out.

    Then, France revealed the player had picked up a thigh injury. And very quickly, Benzema's World Cup was done. An odd few weeks ensued, with strange narratives about Benzema's refusal to play for the side, and manager Didier Deschamps forcing him out of the picture.

    Exactly how it played out is rendered irrelevant by what happened next. Benzema effectively got six weeks off, and returned with seven goals in his first seven fixtures after the World Cup. Whether an appetite for revenge or the benefit of a rest, the break had brought Benzema back.

  4. A much needed rest

    A much needed rest

    And Benzema finds himself in a similar situation now. He has since retired from France duty, the differences between him and Deschamps seemingly irreconcilable. That did mean, though, that the striker was able to rest and train while his former France colleagues won their first two Euro 2024 qualifiers over the past fortnight.

    The version of Benzema that returned to action evoked memories of last year's. His seven-minute hat-trick was a tiny spell in one of his best showings of the year.

    He had five shots on target, created an additional big chance, and finished the game with an almost perfect match rating. Manager Carlo Ancelotti withdrew him after 64 minutes, and Benzema received a rousing reception as he left the pitch.

    And although Benzema looked predictably displeased to be removed from a Real rout, his showing could hardly have been more perfect. Not only did he show flashes of being at his Ballon d'Or-winning best, he also got to sit out for 25 minutes, and avoid the fatigue of an additional stretch of running.

  5. What Barca have to fear
    (C)Getty Images

    What Barca have to fear

    This is all bad news for a Barcelona side defending a precarious 1-0 lead. Impressive as their narrow win at the Bernabeu was a few weeks ago, the Blaugrana were perhaps fortunate to snatch a first-leg victory.

    For all of their defensive excellence, they grabbed the winner via an own goal and allowed 65 percent possession to Los Blancos.

    "I don't think they deserved to win. It was one of the best games in terms of control," Ancelotti said post-match. "If we play like this in the second leg we'll have more chances, I don't think Barcelona can approach the game like that at home."

    Crucially, though, that contest also pitted Barcelona against a half-fit Benzema. The striker had been hurried back for a Champions League clash against Liverpool a week previosuly, retained in the side for the Madrid derby, and looked out of both legs and ideas that night.

    There should, of course, be credit handed to Barca for their defensive work, but they won't face that version of the Ballon d'Or winner on Wednesday.

    Indeed, the rested and firing edition will walk into Camp Nou. And this is Benzema's time of year.