MARTIN SAMUEL: Why brilliant Karim Benzema is thriving in his thirties

MARTIN SAMUEL: Why brilliant Karim Benzema is thriving in his thirties… PLUS, it can’t get better than competing against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool for trophies – so why would Pep Guardiola walk away from Man City?

  • Karim Benzema kept his Real Madrid side in the Champions League semi-finals
  • The striker, 34, scored twice in their 4-3 loss against Manchester City last week 
  • Pep Guardiola should stay at Manchester City after Jurgen Klopp’s new contract
  • The Spaniard will not get a fiercer competition than against Liverpool right now
  • Meanwhile, prospective new Chelsea owner Todd Boehly is a brave US investor

If Karim Benzema did not play for Real Madrid, fans of Manchester City would have booked their flights to Paris by now.

Benzema kept his team in their Champions League semi-final, just as he has propelled them to dominate La Liga this year.

The wonderful images of the amiable Carlo Ancelotti puffing on a large cigar as he celebrated Real Madrid’s title are a result of Benzema’s remarkable form: 29 league starts, 26 goals, to go with 10 European starts and 14 goals. 

Including his performances for France, Benzema has scored 47 times this season. His longest barren run for his club has been just two games.

Of all Real Madrid’s players, Benzema has been the one to come bustling out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow, but his success this season runs deeper than that. 

This is about more than now being able to occupy position A in the penalty box. This is about always knowing where position A will be. Benzema is 34 now, an age at which a striker was thought to be finished.

Karim Benzema kept Real Madrid in their Champions League semi-final vs Manchester City

The French star scored twice in his side’s 4-3 loss at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday last week

It was goalkeepers who matured with age, goalkeepers who took a decade or more to learn their craft. The best goalscorers were long gone by then. 

Jimmy Greaves made his Tottenham debut in 1961 at the age of 21, the same year Dino Zoff played his first game for Udinese, at 19. 

By the time Zoff kept goal for Italy at the 1982 World Cup, Greaves had been out of the professional game for 11 years.

So goalkeepers got the chance to pour all of that wisdom, all of that experience, into a long career. Zoff was 40 when he won the World Cup. There was nothing about his trade he did not know. 

That is Benzema, now. This is his 18th season as a professional footballer, 18 years of working out where to stand, when to go, where to move, how to disappear and reappear as the greatest goalscorers do.

Time was, it would be over by now. Just as it was falling most naturally into place, just as it was clearer than ever what was needed, Benzema’s body would have been letting him down. No more. 

The wonderful images of Carlo Ancelotti (right) puffing on a large cigar as he celebrated Real Madrid’s title are a result of Benzema’s remarkable form: 29 league starts, 26 league goals

City are hoping to buy another phenomenal striker in Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland (above) this summer, hoping that, in 13 years’ time, he’ll still be just as good as Benzema is now

Strikers now last longer than ever and leagues contain a new breed of goalscorer, playing longer than before, able to use experience to the maximum: Jamie Vardy, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo. Ciro Immobile, top goalscorer in Italy, is 32.

Talking with Peter Schmeichel, he made another point about Benzema. He’s old-fashioned. A lot of modern strikers, even the most potent ones such as Mo Salah, are glorified midfield players. 

Salah attacks from the flanks, or from deep. He’s not a central No 9. Benzema is. He wants to hold that position, lead that line, wants to get physical, play high, wants to use his innate gift for movement to its best effect.

Defenders are not used to dealing with that these days. Benzema unsettles them. Oleksandr Zinchenko thought he was in a good position for Madrid’s first goal last week. He thought he had his man covered. He didn’t.

Benzema beat him to the ball, cushioned his volley into the net. Zinchenko probably won’t face another opponent capable of that this season. Manchester City won’t face another striker of his calibre, either, no matter who they play. 

They are hoping to buy one in Erling Haaland this summer; hoping that, in 13 years’ time, he’ll still be just as good as Benzema is now. 

Why would Pep walk away from City? 

Jurgen Klopp having signed a new contract with Liverpool, all eyes turn to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. 

He’s already long passed his stay at previous clubs and has spoken of wanting to try international management. Typically, Guardiola does shorter stints than Klopp, we know that. Yet, why not? Why wouldn’t he stay? 

It would be strange for City manager Pep Guardiola (pictured right) to walk away from the club

Set aside the incredible support he receives at City and the financial power of the club, where is Guardiola going to find an epic challenge on the scale of the battle with Liverpool? There is nothing like it out there for him. 

Nothing that would test his ability as coach and manager, tactician and mentor, selector and recruiter. It is without doubt among the reasons Klopp wanted to stay. 

Yes, he is right for the club and his wife likes their life here, those are compelling motivations, too. But, professionally, how rewarding must this season be?

He has the chance to win the quadruple, while up against one of the greatest teams this country has ever seen. He is pitting his wits against one of the games’ finest minds. And there is mutual respect. 

Where else would the Spaniard get the chance to face world-class stars like Mohamed Salah (left) and Virgil van Dijk (right) of Liverpool, plus Reds boss Jurgen Klopp, on a regular basis?

In purely professional terms, for all of his achievements at Borussia Dortmund, this must be the time of Klopp’s life. A third Champions League final in five years is a distinct probability. Dortmund were a good team, but they couldn’t do that.

And Guardiola? Could we seriously imagine a coach as driven as he is, content to wait for meaningful competitions every two years?

 Wading through qualifying rounds of mismatches, shorn of drama, waiting months for the chance to have a crack at opponents that are palpably inferior when he could be up against Mo Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold. And Klopp. 

Guardiola walked away from Barcelona once, from Lionel Messi and his Catalan home. He could walk again. But surely the challenge is here, and now, which is what Klopp recognised. It doesn’t get better than this. 

Kick partisan journalists out of the press box 

The fans alleged to have attacked two German radio commentators when West Ham played Eintracht Frankfurt last week will be banned indefinitely from the London Stadium.

Rightly so. They are two-bob thugs who rained blows on people who were at work, and sitting down, unable to fight back or even defend themselves. Get them out, and get them out for good.

There are increasing problems, though, with partisan press boxes. It is not unusual these days to be in the presence of fans with laptops or microphones, particularly at European games.

Goals are celebrated, commentaries are blatantly biased and emotional. Every major club has an ever-expanding media department taking up room, plus statistical analysts, often wearing club kit.

Press boxes should be neutral – that would stop incidents like at West Ham’s Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday, when two German pundits were attacked

And press boxes tend to be embedded in the heart of the home support, hemmed in on all sides. Flashpoints occur. 

A partisan radio crew following Paris Saint-Germain nearly sparked a riot with their celebrations when David Luiz scored a late winning goal for them at Chelsea a few years back. 

Television companies have given up all pretence of impartiality and now show their presenters and commentators celebrating, even singing like supporters during games. This doesn’t excuse what happened at West Ham, but may explain why confrontation occurs.

If journalists behave like fans, fans will treat them like fans. If you want to support your team, buy a ticket: this is the press box.

Not like you to get your facts muddled up, Nigel…

Nigel Huddleston, the sports minister, had a little pop back on Twitter after his appearance in the column last week. 

‘Some rather sloppy/made-up assumptions,’ he said, which was peculiar as the piece was based on what he said, quoted everywhere, about the Premier League needing to cough up another billion for the football pyramid — or the Government regulator would take it from them. 

Huddleston was spectacularly uninformed, or simply uncaring, over how this would be achieved. It’s not a Government big on detail. Anyway, we disagree. That happens. But here is what I found interesting. 

The piece to which Huddleston objected was written, he said, by ‘@MSamuelDT’ in his ‘@DailyMailUK’ column. For a start, I’m not on Twitter, never have been, never will be, so he’s wrong about that.

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston had a pop on Twitter after appearing in last week’s column

But, if I was, why would I be using an account that appears to have been dormant for six years, and tweeted just once? And why would a Daily Mail journalist have DT in his account? It would be DM, surely.

Look. I’m not saying Huddleston is sloppy or made it up, but he certainly doesn’t seem too bright, which is why I wouldn’t want football to be regulated by an appointee of this Government. They’re not good enough, they’re not smart enough, and they’re playing with the sport because they think it wins votes.

This is also why they rushed out the announcement about a Government regulator before telling Parliament, earning a dressing down from the Speaker. So Boris Johnson could have his little kickabout photo op at Bury last week.

Meanwhile, in the absence of an answer from Tracey Crouch, if the sports minister would like to tell me whether the Prime Minister would pass the integrity test for football club ownership, if he is found to have lied to or misled Parliament, he knows where I am. Clue: not on Twitter.

Rethink time for relegation regulars

Here are two things that do not work: Watford and Norwich. Not as Premier League entities, anyway. Not as they currently are. 

Norwich returned to the Championship with their 23rd league defeat of the season on Saturday, Watford, now 12 points adrift of safety, need to win all of their final four games to even stand the remotest chance of survival, so will duly follow them.

It is Norwich’s sixth Premier League relegation, and the last three have come at the first attempt. Watford will now fall a fourth time, and this will be their third immediate relegation from the top flight. So, whatever these clubs are doing, isn’t working. 

There is perhaps more sympathy for Norwich who do not have football-wealthy owners or a significant budget, but Watford possess a philosophy supposedly built on the trading smarts of the Pozzo family. 

The Pozzo family’s modus operandi at relegation regulars Watford is evidently not working

Managers are disposable and often treated with contempt and, if it worked, there may be some justification. But it doesn’t. 

Watford keep getting relegated because their strategy is tailored to business, not football. No coach lasts long enough to forge an identity.

Equally, while any team outside the famed Big Six could get relegated with the right set of unfortunate circumstances, Brighton are now concluding their fifth season, if Burnley stay up they will have lasted six, Crystal Palace nine, Southampton 10.

It does not follow that Norwich always have to go down, or that Watford appear permanently at risk. It is happening too often to be just rotten luck. Strategically, they are getting it wrong, yet stay strangely resistant to change.

Boehly knows he can’t stage a coup

Todd Boehly will be the most intriguing American owner in English football for one simple reason: he knows the Super League is dead. All of the others — the Glazers, the Kroenkes, the Fenway Sports Group — we now doubt their motives. 

Was this the game-plan all along? Get inside the English game and steal it, moulding it to their enormous advantage and profit. Boehly is buying in at a time when that coup can no longer happen. Not like before, anyway. 

The elite clubs will always bully and threaten UEFA into skewing the competition towards them. 

We can see that with the pressure put on for those contemptible historic places. Yet that is a safety net not a guaranteed revenue stream. A relatively successful club should never need it anyway.

Prospective new Chelsea owner Todd Boehly is braver than the other American investors

The big win, the promised breakaway, is dead. The clubs know they would lose their fanbase overnight if it happened, and new regulations may make it a legal impossibility without withdrawing from domestic competition.

So Boehly is buying in on what he sees now. Four competitions — three domestic, one European — plus maybe the promise of an enhanced Club World Cup. 

Chelsea have a good revenue stream through their successful academy and a redeveloped Stamford Bridge has huge potential, but will be costly. 

Boehly, however, sees profit in Chelsea as is. It doesn’t make him better than the other American investors, but perhaps braver.

What a bizarre request from Roman Abramovich that those bidding for Chelsea up their offers by £500million to fund a charitable donation to the victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine. He can’t be charitable with someone else’s money. 

And Matt Le Tissier’s extreme and irrational comments should not be given such a big platform

Matt Le Tissier was given a significant platform at the weekend to advance more conspiracy theories about Covid victims being actors and the war in Ukraine being Western propaganda. 

The strange thing is, these extreme, often irrational, arguments become bound up in debates about plurality. Don’t we need to hear more independent voices, questioning the accepted logic, it is asked. Well, no actually, we don’t. 

We need a range of views and ideas, but only if they’re rational. Every time someone from NASA speaks, it doesn’t require counter-balancing with Tony, from Luton, who thinks the Earth is flat and we’re going to sail off the end of it. 

Le Tissier’s 100 best goals remain a wonderful watch but, for now, let’s leave it there.

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