The connection between Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr. drives Real Madrid’s excellent season

When the Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema finally win his first Ballon d’Or, as he surely will in 2022, I sincerely hope his first words are: “I have to thank Vinicius Jose Paixao de Oliveira Junior.”

Currently, Benzema plays the most beautiful football shown by any player in any major league, and has done so since the start of the 2021-22 season. It’s not just about the extensive goalscoring production shown during the most prolific months of his entire career. It’s not even just about the fact that the Frenchman has elevated Real Madrid’s ability to crown them as European football’s “comeback kings” of all time, who seem to shout “don’t you dare rule us out” by adding a extra level of unbeaten performance thanks to a series of unlikely, admirable and unexpected goals.

It’s about the fact that his technical ability, decision-making, movement, passing, daring, creativity, self-confidence, heading, shooting, split-second reactions and playfulness are precisely the elements whose recognition motivated the invention of the Ballon d’Or. .

Benzema makes football beautiful, in the truest sense of the word. Like the fine arts, opera and cinema, watching it play makes the senses take flight. However, anyone who fails to see the connection between his partnership with Vinicius, unlikely as it may be, and the Frenchman’s elevation to a footballing level that surpasses anything he has produced in his already sumptuous career, has not paid due attention… or he doesn’t understand football.

Please tell me: did you see Real Madrid’s last battle, in which they came back from a 2-0 deficit to beat Sevilla 3-2 last Sunday at the Sánchez-Pizjuán Stadium? (replay available on ESPN+ only in the United States) Although the arithmetic still does not support this thesis, it was the victory that guaranteed that Madrid would soon become LaLiga champions. Likewise, it was a performance that served to warn Manchester City that, despite starting as favorites next week in the Champions League semi-finals, the draw meant that Pep Guardiola’s English champions had to come up against a group of totally extraordinary characters, incapable of to get the word “surrender” in the dictionary nor with arrows pointing to it.

The highlight of the Madrid comeback was a goal, exquisite both in its creation and its execution, which showed the best level of the 21-year-old Brazilian winger and the 34-year-old French winner. Take a break and watch the decisive fifth whether or not they have done it yet: Vinicius runs quickly towards a small hole where there seemed to be no room for his body; much less for invention and anarchy. However, Vini conjured a heel pass to a Rodrygo on the run, a cut of the youngster before Benzema measured his angles and left several Sevilla players scattered, drooling and lamenting as he scored the winning goal.

I reiterate: Although the debate about the greatness of Benzema and the need for him to win this historic award has to do with the excellent level of his game and his partnership with Vinicius beyond pure statistics, we cannot escape the remarkable figures generated by Both.

When Benzema converted to beat Sevilla and “secure” his fourth title in Spain, he came within six goals of beating Real Madrid’s second-best all-time goalscorer: the inimitable Raúl González Blanco. If the Frenchman continues to score at his current rate, he will achieve the feat and score his 324th goal for the White House approximately 150 games before the Spanish soccer legend. A level that escapes from the normal.

When Benzema converted to beat Sevilla and “secure” his fourth title in Spain, he came within six goals of beating Real Madrid’s second-best all-time goalscorer: the inimitable Raúl González Blanco. If the Frenchman continues to score at his current rate, he will achieve the feat and score his 324th goal for the White House approximately 150 games before the Spanish soccer legend. A level that escapes from the normal.

With nine games to play for Benzema and Vinicius in the Real Madrid shirt this season, it is a total between goals and assists higher than that shown in the three campaigns in which the Frenchman partnered with Cristiano Ronaldo between 2009 and 2018.

Part of what makes this society so delightful is the joy of seeing it. Benzema (unrestrained, cunning and free to run near the final third of the pitch, with absolute freedom granted by his coach, with his teammates handing him the ball whenever he demands it) shows off every gram and inch of what he has learned him since his debut 17 years ago with Lyon, in a match against Metz.

Sometimes Vinicius is a bit clumsy; sometimes a little cool. He displays a huge smile, bewitching technique, occasional flashes of irrationality and irascibility: all infused with a personality that seems to say “don’t make me angry by kicking me”, permeated by the sheer pleasure of putting the opponent in trouble. He is the kind of player that sells tickets and fills seats.

However, these societies are not usually formed by opposite extremes. Just like the old song goes: “You say potato, I say potato. Forget everything!” Not too long ago, Benzema wasn’t the only Madrid squad member with fragile patience. seeing that the young Brazilian was very prone to mixing foolishness with audacity. He was the only one caught expressing it without reservation.

Imagine the scene. It happened exactly 16 months ago and Madrid have the opportunity to catch up with Borussia Monchengladbach playing away. Benzema, grumpy and discouraged, goes out again to play the second half accompanied by the left back Ferland Mendy. Unaware that he is being picked up by microphones on the field of play, he surprises her by saying, “Don’t pass the ball to him, he’s playing against us.”

He was talking about Vinicius, his partner of 20 years. A boy who needs support, advice and persuasion. On the contrary, he receives a rant that will reach the Spanish media in a matter of a few days. As far as a “partnership” went, this moment was, tentatively, a death knell for trust and mutual understanding, as well as his success. Obviously it was not like that, but we can see the latent threat.

The statistics didn’t bode well either. When was the first game you played together and in which one of you converted? November 2018 against Real Valladolid, in which Vinicius’ crazy effort paid off. The first meeting in which both scored? It came three months later, when they converted in a 3-0 win over Alavés. Vinicius’ first assist for Benzema? Ten days later, specifically on February 13, 2019, when Madrid won on Ajax’s pitch.

Then came the disagreements and uncoordinated play, as well as Benzema’s frustration that reached its peak that night at Mönchengladbach’s stadium. In fact, it took two years from that assist in Amsterdam until earlier this season, in the home defeat against Sheriff Tiraspol, for the young Brazilian to assist Benzema in another Champions League goal.

But look at them now.

With a 2-0 disadvantage and eliminated against PSG, with half an hour remaining to end their Champions League round of 16 match, Vinicius looks up when he is on the wing and sends the ball towards Benzema’s right boot, precisely what They accused him of not doing. Playing against Chelsea, in the 20th minute of their quarter-final first leg, Benzema’s right-footed “hit” sends Vinicius running down the left flank and this time, he doesn’t look up. Instinct guides his radar and he puts the ball right in front of Benzema, which he defines with the best header of his career to give his team a 1-0 lead in London.

Against Chelsea again (this time on the ropes, down 3-1 at home, 3-3 on aggregate and just 15 minutes from a penalty shootout), Vinicius receives the ball down the left. Benzema has taught him how to handle it: life with “Le Roi de France” has helped this exceptional boy to think quickly and act effectively. Benzema has taught him how to “feel” at crucial moments.

Everything came together at that moment against Chelsea, who could be winning 5-0 or 6-0 in that second leg. Vinicius stops, allows his partner in attack to launch towards the near post tricking Anthony Rudiger and then, delightfully, he holds off his delivery until the German center back is in the wrong spot. Benzema took three steps back; therefore, he is splendidly isolated.

The pass is perfect; the header, a delight. Now Madrid, driven by the best Benzema of his career and his new friend Vinicius, is 180 minutes away from playing another Champions League final.

Benzema agrees with me about the importance of the beauty of his football, regardless of how seductive his statistics seem.

The striker recently said: “Nowadays, too many people don’t even bother to see what a player does during the game, they only look at who scores. The next day the headlines say: ‘He’s the best!’ That’s happened to me: a bad game, but I score and they praise me. That’s not the kind of football I like and I don’t understand things that way.”

“When I play, I try to show respect. When I see a teammate in a better position than I am, I don’t think, ‘Wow, maybe I can score instead of him.’ I just pass the ball to him so he can convert with the easiest chance. I try to make things better for those around me.”

This includes Vinicius.

“People remember what I said [en Mönchengladbach] about him, but these days he doesn’t look anything like the player he was back then. Ask him! It was evident that he had much more to produce: with a few words, some instructions on the court, I showed him some important things about playing in the last 30 meters of the court. Now, he makes the right decisions when it comes to shooting, passing, raising his head so he can see the panorama in front of him. He is doing what he should have done a long time ago. Vini is young, but very good: now it is not necessary to say anything to him”.

Vinicius, in an interview with UEFA, supported what his teammate said: “[Karim] He is a great person: from the beginning, he has always given me support and confidence. Above all, it is about his advice on the pitch. Playing with him is a dream come true…someone you could only see in video games before! The quality of it is amazing. I had never played with a striker at the level he plays at: he is different from the rest.”

Right now, Vinicius and Real Madrid have Benzema to thank for educating the 21-year-old whose brain can now keep up with his blistering speed. In December, when I win the Ballon d’Or, I’d love to hear Benzema admit: “Thanks, kid… I owe you one.”

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The connection between Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr. drives Real Madrid’s excellent season