After a typically Gallic shrug, that was what Karim Benzema offered as an explanation for his audacious – deep breath – no-look, backheel, nutmeg assist as Real Madrid limped to a 1-0 win at Espanyol.
In an otherwise unremarkable contest, Benzema’s spark of ingenuity lit up a rather lacklustre performance from the visitors.
As the Espanyol team breathed a collective sigh of relief having made it into the 45th-minute unscathed and with one or two questions asked of Madrid, Benzema delivered a fatal blow to the team propping up the La Liga table.
Bernardo looked to have shepherded the Frenchman towards the byline, with his back to play, only for Benzema to stab it through the defender’s open legs into the path of a grateful Casemiro, who snaffled up the chance.
Immediately, eyes across the continent sought out the similarly ridiculous backheel assist Guti delivered ten years ago, although that time Benzema was on the receiving end of the genius. Fittingly, Guti gave his seal of approval via Twitter shortly after the full-time whistle.
Real Madrid may not have blown away relegation-bound Espanyol, but that victory was enough for Los Blancos clad in mint green to open up a two-point gap at the summit of La Liga.
After Celta Vigo’s second half heroics ensured that Barcelona’s woes on the road continued, the title race that seemed so tight going into the suspension of play, has swung in favour of the team from the capital.
Since La Liga’s return in June, Real Madrid are the only side to have won each of their five post-lockdown matches thanks in no small part to the talismanic figure of Benzema. The 32-year-old has scored three goals in the five games since the restart, climbing above the legendary figure of Ferenc Puskás in Madrid’s all-time scoring charts in spectacular fashion.
Yet, 2020 hadn’t exactly been littered with stunning volleys and bamboozling backheels for Benzema before football’s enforced hiatus.
After an individually successful campaign in Real Madrid’s first post-Cristiano Ronaldo term last year, Benzema picked up from where he left off in 2019/20. By mid-December, Real’s number nine had scored 12 goals in 15 La Liga games along with five assists – only Lionel Messi could narrowly better this contribution. In fact, Benzema’s form was so good that a return from national team exile was seriously suggested – only for the French FA to swiftly dismiss that possibility.
But after a disappointing goalless clásico, Benzema found the net just twice more until the coronavirus pandemic halted football for three months. With his – and Real Madrid’s – nadir coming in the 2-1 Champions League defeat to Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Despite playing the entire 90 minutes, Benzema mustered a single shot and had the fewest touches of any player who started the match – even Aymeric Laporte, who hobbled off after half an hour, had more of a feel of the ball than the Madrid forward.
Yet, since the restart he has been reinvigorated, looking sharp and clinical as everyone else shakes off the rust accumulated from an absence of competitive action.
Real’s manager Zinedine Zidane, no stranger to a touch of brilliance during his own days in a Madrid shirt, admitted after the Espanyol game that he has come to expect this standard from his compatriot.
Zidane went on to deliver an interesting take on the performance of footballers in their more senior years, declaring: “A player always improves and every year players get better and that’s exactly what’s happening to him. He’s at a very good age, up to 32-33 years old, if you look after yourself like he does, these are the best years for a footballer. He can still play a lot because he takes care of himself.”
The idea of an outfield player reaching their peak in their early 30s is not an altogether common one, but the Real Madrid hierarchy will be desperately hoping it applies to their latest galáctico, Eden Hazard. The 29-year-old has endured a debut campaign plagued by injury but when he has made it onto the field, he and Benzema have shown glimpses of a glorious partnership.
Hazard is at his impudent best when he has a skilful focal point to bounce one-touch passes off. At Chelsea he declared Olivier Giroud as ‘the best target man in the world’ and, according to Benzema himself, Hazard’s Real Madrid colleague is a Formula 1 car to the Chelsea man’s go-kart.
As the La Liga season hurtles towards its conclusion, Benzema has hit a rich vein of form at the perfect time to nudge Real Madrid ahead of their bitter title rivals. And according to Zidane, the Frenchman is set to get even better. A dangerous prospect for the unguarded legs of opposition defenders.