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Friday, May 27, 2022

Real Madrid and Karim Benzema offer the comfort of continuity | Champions League

The world, we are told, is in a state of chaotic and unprecedented flux.

Technology is changing our lives at a frightening rate. All across the globe, societies are fracturing and falling apart. The destruction of the planet is accelerating before our eyes. Every passing week seems to bring new ruptures, new shocks, new disfigurements.

But Luka Modric is still running the midfield for Real Madrid, so, you know, that. And not just Modric: as white shirts insouciantly knocked the ball around the Stamford Bridge lawn in the closing minutes, it was like peering through a telescope into a perfectly preserved phantasm of the past. Toni Kroos had already gone off, but Casemiro was still there, snapping and scurrying like a man looking for a lost wedding ring. So was Dani Carvajal. So was Nacho Fernández. Even Gareth Bale had treated us to a rare foray from the bench, boosting his daily step count if little else.

And then, of course, there was Karim Benzema: jersey still moist from the rain, features still etched with a pure, restless desire. Carlo Ancelotti finally took him off in the 86th minute, but the Madrid fans were still singing his name half an hour later. Benzema came over to greet them, and while his teammates disappeared down the tunnel Benzema lingered a little longer, savouring the moment, perhaps hoping to eke it out forever.

The gilded lineage, the familiar faces and rhythms, the comfort of continuity: this is the gift of Madrid, but also its curse. After all, they arrived in London with points to prove. It is a very Madrid sickness to be 12 points clear in La Liga and still basically grumbling about everything, but since the turn of the year – and certainly in recent weeks – not all has been well. Against Barcelona in the Clásico, they looked limp and leaden, a team that had run out of ideas and puff. Modric and Kroos were overrun in midfield. Madrid lost 4-0.

And when you look at this squad, what strikes you above all is the encrusted decadence, the sense of extravagant waste. Their bench here was full of players you forgot existed: Mariano, Bale, Dani Ceballos. Isco is still there. Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic are still there. Marcelo is still there. Madrid don’t need Kylian Mbappé. They need an HR department.

By rights, then, Ancelotti’s side should be in a kind of spiralling decline, the sort of slow crisis that takes a decade to fix. But of course, they’re not. Part of the reason is that their footballers are still extremely good. Modric was brilliant here: teasing and controlling and manoeuvring the midfield despite looking increasingly like a 70-year-old Jimmy Bullard.

Again, Modric shouldn’t really be doing this. He’s a month older than Wayne Rooney. Jorginho cleaned him out after his very first touch. Antonio Rüdiger ran past him as if he wasn’t there. And briefly it felt as if Chelsea, with their superior fitness, their superior organisation, their Premier League speed and intensity, might just run Madrid off the park.

Gareth Bale and Carlo Ancelotti
Carlo Ancelotti gave Gareth Bale a rare runout. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

And yes, Real’s midfield is not quite as nimble as it used to be. They rarely push into the final third. They do not show for the ball from Thibaut Courtois. And so their utility is strictly delineated. If a centre-half gets into trouble, or the front three have messed up the press, Modric and Kroos are not coming to save you. But as Madrid came into the game, probing the spaces behind Chelsea’s wing-backs, we were reminded that speed is not simply a physical attribute.

It was Kroos who played the forward pass that led to Benzema’s opening goal: a symphony of perfectly pitched high-grade attacking talent, the sort of goal Paris Saint-Germain still occasionally score when they’re not scowling at each other. Next it was Modric to turn provider, another headed miracle from the brass neck of Benzema. By which point, of course, there was no longer any doubt as to the identity of the star attraction.

Consider: Benzema spent the prime years of his career as a sort of human sacrifice, running the channels and occupying defenders so Cristiano Ronaldo could be the man. He watched his country win a World Cup on television because of a six-year international exile. At 34, with 16 years of top-class football in his legs, it would be entirely reasonable for him to be winding down his career, perhaps with a well-paid sinecure in China or the US, and thereafter a comfortable life of cryptocurrency partnerships and Uefa draws.

And yet all along there was an impatience to him, a fire that never went out, an urge to sharpen the edges of his game, push his limits. Édouard Mendy will be blamed for Madrid’s third goal but we should acknowledge the pure hunger from Benzema to hunt down a lost cause, the same hunger that took him from the banlieues chaudes of Lyon to the pinnacle of the game, to never stop chasing, to never stop dreaming.

None of which obscures the very real and pressing questions Madrid face over the next six to 18 months. This squad does need renewal. It does need a vision. Ultimately it probably needs a new coach. A valid criticism of Madrid is its continued reliance on these ageing stars, a refusal to accept that things change and nothing lasts forever. But on nights like this, you realise why it remains such a seductive fantasy.

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