The 2022 Ballon d’Or winner continues to be a game-changer for Real Madrid – but now Karim Benzema is also regularly injured or unfit. It’s time to react on the transfer market.
Karim Benzema refused to shake Carlo Ancelotti’s hand when the manager substituted him in the second leg of the 2023 Champions League quarter-finals against Chelsea. The game had already been decided when Benzema was substituted, Real were clearly leading after two legs and were on course for the semi-finals.
Benzema, who picked up an injury in a first-half tackle, probably just needed a break too. But the striker still wanted to stay on the pitch – a symbol of the season so far, it’s like a little roller coaster ride.
Since then, the French international has played a miserable 90 minutes against Celta Vigo and also had to sit out Real’s defeat by Girona (2-4) at the end of April due to a protracted injury from west London. He was only back again against Almeria and contributed a hat-trick in a 4-2 home win – then the striker was missing in the squad against Real Sociedad (0-2), played against Osasuna in the cup win (2-1) and Manchester City (1-1), then got another time-out against Getafe (1-0). In the 4-0 second leg against City, he was back on the pitch for 90 minutes.
His internal substitutes, who were allowed to play in the meantime (Diaz, Rodrygo and Asensio), were not remotely convincing. Real have not brought in a direct replacement so far because a Ballon d’Or winner always plays and doesn’t want to be questioned. But Benzema needs his breaks more and more – be it because of injuries or the fitness of a 35-year-old professional.
That’s why Real Madrid have to get his successor in the summer of 2023.
Karim Benzema at Real: A fantastic season
To say it again clearly: Benzema should not be ousted from the regular eleven. Real have given him a new one-year deal, making it clear they don’t want to let him go.
But Benzema’s aging legs are not as fit as they used to be – despite injuries, the Frenchman kept running.
But Ancelotti needs a player who can replace Benzema in such cases – so that he can get his recovery periods. While not in the same form as he was in Ballon d’Or year, he’s still one of the best forwards in the world.
He also continues to do all the typical Benzema things: he drops deep to get the balls; he steals his way to the far post almost unnoticed; he creates opportunities even in the tightest of spaces; and he still freezes defenders when he has the ball.
And even if he’s not directly involved in goals, his runs often create decisive spaces for his teammates. So Vini is better when his partner is on the pitch.
Benzema is also still there when it really counts: he scored two goals and provided one assist against Liverpool at Anfield. In the Copa del Rey semifinals, he scored a hat-trick against Barcelona! The player who crushed opponents Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City in last year’s Champions League is still one of the best in the world.
Karim Benzema: It doesn’t work in Madrid without him
Because Benzema was out in the heavy 4-0 defeat by Barcelona last April, Ancelotti gave a gloomy assessment: “Without Benzema we had no chance.” The team is completely different without him, and his leadership mentality is also missing.
Results have improved in recent weeks when Benzema was out, but early in the season Real lost the Spanish championship without him early on – even losing to teams from the bottom half of the table: Mallorca and Rayo Vallecano.
The 4-2 defeat against Girona at the end of April cannot be attributed to Real’s lack of offensive quality, but Madrid would certainly have had a chance with a fit Benzema – despite their disastrous defence.
So Ancelotti was right. Without the French, Real is no longer the same team.
What type of player does Real Madrid need?
Wanting to replace Benzema 1-to-1 is not only snooty, but also simply impossible at the moment – there are currently no players like Haaland on the market.
Blancos therefore need a reliable replacement who can sit on the bench without complaining – or play on the wings to get playing time even when Benzema is fit.
Actually, this replacement should be called Luka Jovic. The ex-Frankfurter, who came to the Spanish capital in 2019 for 63 million euros, failed miserably – and went to Florence for free in 2022. For Real, he scored a pitiful three goals in 51 games and around 1,500 minutes.
Also because his transfer failed, Real must now continue to look for a replacement and eventual successor for Benzema.
Real Madrid: A complicated transfer window
But this summer 2023 transfer window will be a complicated one. As early as 2022, the royals wanted to lure Kylian Mbappé out of Paris – it seemed like the perfect transfer. Until the Frenchman decided to do another 180 degree turn. And so there is still a small gap for a transfer of Mbappé to Real even for this summer.
Currently, the other big names in the transfer market seem to want to go to other clubs. Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and even PSG are in dire need of a striker – and have the financial means to sign top strikers like Victor Osimhen, Harry Kane or Randal Kolo Muani.
But the Champions League record winner is already reaching for other stars himself: Jude Bellingham is said to come from BVB for 120 to 150 million euros. Would there still be money left for a striker?
They bought a striker recently anyway – but he won’t come for almost two years: teenager Endrick from Palmeiras was worth 35 million euros to President Florentino Perez. He could mark a Brazilian era with slightly older Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo. But Endrick will have to make his way first. Sooner or later, Mbappé also seems to want to come to Madrid. The transition after Benzema’s retirement will be complicated.
Real’s Benzema successor: The internal alternatives
But Ancelotti also has some, albeit limited, internal options.
For his part, Rodrygo has shown his potential as a centre-forward. When he came on as a central striker against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, his brace secured Real’s semi-finals.
The Brazilian has made 12 appearances as a centre-forward this LaLiga campaign but has only scored twice. Compared to SPOX and GOAL he confirmed in an interview earlier this year that he much prefers to play in attacking midfield – a position that doesn’t exist in Ancelotti’s preferred 4-3-3.
Talented 18-year-old Alvaro Rodriguez was briefly traded as a long-term option but his playing time has been limited since scoring a last-minute equalizer against Atletico Madrid in February.
And in a particularly desperate moment, Ancelotti also experimented with Eden Hazard as a false nine of sorts against Celtic in the Champions League. The Belgian did manage to score one goal but failed to impress in the 50 minutes he was on the pitch.
Benzema: “If it’s halfway there, he wants to play”
Ancelotti also surprised with a statement. Asked if he wanted to rest Benzema when he wasn’t fully fit, the Italian said: “He’s too important for us. He’s shown a very good level in the last few games and that’s maintained by letting him play and not If it’s halfway there, he wants to play and so do we.”
That is perhaps the problem. Benzema wants to play every game but he just can’t do it anymore. Had Madrid’s games against Girona or Getafe been a Champions League semi-final against Man City instead, the striker would undoubtedly have been in the starting XI.
Ancelotti didn’t field him out of caution and his team suffered as a result. The internal alternatives in this position are not what a world-class club like Real needs. And so the Frenchman plays more often than he should – even with minor injuries in the Champions League.
Eventually, this will result in a prolonged injury for Benzema. Forcing an aging striker to struggle against Rayo Vallecano on Tuesday night is not a sustainable solution.
So Real urgently needs a replacement for Benzema. The current situation is no longer sustainable in the coming season.