Karim Benzema

When it became clear early on against Celtic that Real Madrid centre-forward Karim Benzema could not continue, there was no obvious solution.

Manager Carlo Ancelotti’s bench for the holders’ Champions League group opener in Glasgow last night did not include any suitable like-for-like option, so he decided to give the little-used Eden Hazard another chance to prove he could still make an impression at this level.

Hazard ended up with a goal and an assist from an hour on the pitch in a 3-0 win but few around the club believe he could be effective filling in for Benzema in bigger games than this.

An over-dependence on Benzema, and the lack of any real backup for him, is the one glaring problem with an otherwise deep squad. Many at the club had hoped to not have to worry about what they would do if the France striker was missing, but the first injury scare has come just six games into the season.

Kylian Mbappe was lined up to become Madrid’s next galactico attacker this summer, but when the long-term Florentino Perez target decided to stay at Paris Saint-Germain on a new contract, there was no big push to sign another forward.

Erling Haaland had been of interest, but his transfer to Manchester City was official by then. The possibility of a move for Gabriel Jesus was explored, and Ancelotti is a long-term fan of the Brazil striker, but Madrid did not rival Arsenal when Haaland’s arrival made him available from City for £45million ($51.7m). Robert Lewandowski was always joining Barcelona from Bayern Munich.

Indeed, Madrid spent the summer shedding centre-forwards, not signing them — Serbia international Luka Jovic was let go to Fiorentina; the homegrown Borja Mayoral came back from a season out on loan and was swiftly sold to Getafe.

The plan was to trust in Benzema’s ability and durability. This came as Madrid’s PR machine were pushing hard for their man to win this year’s Ballon d’Or. He is deservedly the front-runner: his 15 goals in 12 games helped Madrid win last season’s Champions League, while domestically his 27 goals and 12 assists also led his team to the La Liga title.

Benzema’s link-up play was important to everything Madrid did in attack, making everyone around him play much better — especially Vinicius Junior cutting in from the wing. Realistically there was no player available who could match his skill set.

He had not shone quite so brightly in the early weeks of 2022-23 but still had four goals and an assist after five games — all of which Madrid had won — before they arrived in Scotland. It was normal for a player who turns 35 in December to ease his way into this World Cup season, with the understanding he would know himself exactly what was required. There was faith in his physical reliability — he had played more than 3,500 club minutes in each of the previous four seasons.

Early in the Celtic game, however, Benzema began to hold his right knee after feeling something as he tried to sprint on the counter-attack. After exchanging signals with Ancelotti, he tried to run off the problem but soon realised that was not possible. He received treatment from physios in the dressing room and there was no immediate diagnosis.

Ancelotti turning to Hazard was a surprise. Just last weekend, he had said he “couldn’t say for sure” when the Belgium international would next play. He spent the whole game against Real Betis on the bench, meaning he’d played just 39 minutes across Madrid’s first five games of the season.

Hazard’s standout moment in that brief amount of time was missing the late penalty which Benzema had handed him to take when Madrid were already 4-1 up away to Celta Vigo.

Ancelotti appeared to decide this was a chance to say to the former Chelsea star, ‘Go on, then. Prove me wrong’.

Initially, Hazard looked completely off the pace, but he settled into the game after half-time.

He played an inadvertent role in Madrid’s opening goal scored by Vinicius Junior, then provided the pass for Luka Modric to make it 2-0. He capped his evening by scoring a rare Madrid goal, being in the right place at the right time to finish from Dani Carvajal’s cross.

However, few around the Bernabeu really expect Hazard to suddenly revive his Madrid career, after averaging just two goals per season during his first three full years at the club. Toni Kroos was quite cutting post-match last night when asked on Spanish TV if maybe this goal and performance could be a turning point for his team-mate.

“It’s never been a problem of talent (for Eden), but of fitness, injuries, and sometimes maybe how much he wanted it,” Kroos said, carefully choosing his words. “But he did very well today. Hopefully he can continue like that.”

The word coming from Madrid as the season started was that, should something happen to Benzema, Rodrygo had been identified as the designated back-up. A lot is expected of the Brazilian this year and although he missed the start of the season with a hamstring issue, he came back to hit the winner against Real Betis at the weekend.

Although he has usually used the 21-year-old out wide, Ancelotti believes he has the talent and characteristics to play as a nine who can score goals and link the play. He only has 19 goals in 112 games for Madrid, though, so a big improvement would be necessary.

Should Benzema not be available short-term, Rodrygo is likely to step in for the next two games, both at the Bernabeu, against Mallorca in La Liga and RB Leipzig in Europe. Benzema might not be missed in those, but then comes a trip across town to Atletico Madrid on September 18. Looming on the horizon too is the first Clasico of the season in mid-October.

“It does not seem too serious, but we have to wait calmly for tests,” was all Ancelotti would say. Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois told reporters that “Karim always asks to come off, if he feels anything, as a precaution”.

Still, seeing their only real option for centre-forward limping out of the action at Celtic Park was a scare for all associated with Real Madrid. And a reminder of how pretty much all the club’s attacking eggs are in the Benzema basket again.


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