Zinedine Zidane might well have been expecting the need to stand up for Karim Benzema ahead of the FIFA Club World Cup final on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
Real Madrid’s undisputed first choice at No.9, Benzema has struggled – not only in La Liga where he has scored only twice all season – but also here in the UAE.
Wednesday night’s difficult semi-final against Al Jazira passed without the 30-year-old getting on the scoresheet and to rub salt in the wounds his replacement Gareth Bale scored the winner with his first touch.
The French forward has been excoriated in the Madrid press for a long time now and in particular since missing those chances on Wednesday.
Hence when the pre-match press conference for the final against Gremio rolled around, Benzema was in the firing line.
“I don’t agree with the way he’s been criticised,” said Zidane, coming out fighting on behalf of his man.
“What’s important for me is not only goals. Karim is a different player; he won’t score 50/60 goals but he’s scored a lot of goals in our shirt. For me Karim is one of the best in this sense as a team player.
“I defend him to the death because he is not only one who could have problems. There are some players who sometimes don’t play well, but I defend my players even when they are not doing well – even though this is not the case with Karim.”
The message was loud and clear. Benzema is going to play against Gremio and, with precious few striking options besides, he will probably start the Clasico against Barcelona on December 23 as well.
Perhaps a little more surprising for Zidane is the fact that he’s having to defend Cristiano Ronaldo’s record here as well. Two goals against Sevilla, another against Al Jazira and, don’t forget, a fifth Ballon d’Or in his trophy cabinet, Real Madrid’s record goalscorer is nonetheless taking the blows.
Comments made by the Gremio coach Renato Gaucho in February have resurfaced in recent days where the former winger claimed he was a better player in his pomp than Ronaldo is.
“He is a monster, a great player, but he works hard on his strength and he doesn’t have much technique,” he said on ESPN Brasil’s Bola da Vez.
“You just have to watch him for Real Madrid, the moments when he leaves the left wing, he produces almost nothing.
“I was more versatile, since I could play on the right wing, in the centre, or on the left.”
Unfortunate, perhaps, that Renato’s words would be brought under such scrutiny months down the line after Copa Libertadores victory placed his team in Ronaldo’s path.
Zidane was as diplomatic as he could be when addressing Renato’s comments. Sure, the Brazilian was a great player in his day, was the message, but Zidane couldn’t bring himself to say the ex-winger was better than his main man.
Whatever your allegiance, it’s incredible that it’s even a conversation. It feels a bit like when Amir Khan accuses Floyd Mayweather of ducking him. Maybe on some planet in this galaxy it makes sense but not here.
We don’t need to go through the numbers, the trophies – both club and international – to show Ronaldo is the better player. Certainly not with Renato.
However, another South American superstar has also had a pop this week. When informed of Ronaldo’s post-Ballon d’Or declaration that he was the best player in history, Diego Maradona inquired as to whether or not the 32-year-old was taking the piss.
The assertion there was that Maradona considered himself the greatest. While it may be true that his form between 1986 and 1989 is unmatched, Maradona cannot come close to matching Cristiano’s decade-long consistency.
It seems as though certain individuals are putting themselves alongside Ronaldo in order to remain relevant. Maradona made his statements to AS from his UAE base, where he is coaching second division Fujairah. Don’t worry Diego we haven’t forgotten about you.
Ronaldo attracts attention wherever he goes, whatever he says. It is clearly beyond doubt that he considers himself the best ever. Well, his words carry weight and it would appear he is challenging himself to prove it all over again.
More goals for Real Madrid, more Ballons d’Or are required for him to stave off the snipes. A good start would be bossing the Club World Cup final in Zayed Sports City against Renato’s Gremio, where Maradona will be among the guests of honour.