MADRID: In a recurring theme of Real Madrid’s stuttering season, Zinedine Zidane protested all his side lacked was a goal as they fell 10 points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona after firing more blanks in a bad-tempered Madrid derby.
Yet, in attempting to defend a lacklustre performance from Saturday’s stalemate at Atletico Madrid, Zidane turned the spotlight once more on the misfiring Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
Ronaldo’s run of one goal in eight La Liga games has attracted more attention because it is so out of character for a man who has plundered 414 goals in 408 games as Madrid’s all-time top scorer.
The World Player of the Year has also bagged six goals in four Champions League games to compensate for a slow La Liga start.
Benzema, by contrast, has just two goals in nearly 1,000 minutes on the field this season in all competitions and patience with the Frenchman is wearing thin.
Madrid-based sports daily Marca described the repeated presence of Spanish wonderkid Marco Asensio on the bench for Real’s biggest games as “incomprehensible”after Asensio posed more of a threat for the final 15 minutes than Benzema had for 75 before being hooked at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Marca’s rival publication AS described Benzema as a “ghost striker” for his lack of end product.
Former England great Gary Lineker has even provoked a fierce reaction from both Zidane and Benzema in recent weeks for labelling the latter “overrated”.
Benzema’s eight-year stint at the Santiago Bernabeu has been filled with highs and lows.
Jose Mourinho complained of his meek nature claiming he wanted a “hunter” whilst describing Benzema as a “cat” when Real boss, and Benzema has often found himself whistled by the demanding Bernabeu crowd for his lack of killer instinct.
– Real backing –
However, in a huge show of support, Benzema, 29, was handed a bumper new four-year contract in September.
Madrid also bet big on Benzema by cashing in on Alvaro Morata when Chelsea offered £60 million ($81 million, 68 million euros) in July and failed to replace the Spanish international.
Morata scored more goals than Benzema last season despite playing fewer minutes and his sensational start to his Chelsea career has left even Ronaldo questioning Madrid’s transfer policy.
The Portuguese admitted Real lacked the same experience in a depleted squad this season after a first defeat in the Champions League group stages for five years at Tottenham Hotspur in their last European outing.
Yet it is Ronaldo’s presence that has played a huge role in preserving Benzema’s status as Madrid’s number nine with the latter seen as the perfect unselfish foil for Ronaldo.
“He is more egotistical than me, but that is normal,” Benzema told Canal+ France last week on his relationship with Ronaldo.
“I score goals but there is someone alongside me who scores 50 goals a season.”
Zidane has been a fierce defender of Benzema’s role as a team player not just a goalscorer.
“Karim won’t score 60 goals a season, but he will score 25 or 30 and make 30-40,” he said in response to Lineker’s criticism.
However, having saved their money as rampant inflation swept through the transfer market in the summer, time is running out for Benzema to prove his worth with Real well-placed to splash out on a new Galactico at the end of the season.
Harry Kane, Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have all been linked with a move to the Bernabeu.
The one competition where Benzema does have a formidable record is in the Champions League.
Only Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy have scored more than his 51 goals in the competition proper.
A return to form to secure Real’s place in the knockout phase for a 21st consecutive season when they travel to Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia on Tuesday is needed to quieten the critics once more.