PARIS, June 5 (Reuters) - Having shed some seven kilos last summer, Karim Benzema is finally delivering at the highest level and is on the verge of completing a vintage season as the European championship finals loom.
Benzema, 24, who joined Real Madrid from Olympique Lyon in 2009, has matured into a dangerous all-round striker, all his hard work paying off as he shows his true class.
He has played an increasing part in play-making and defensive duties, to add to his silky touch and eye for goal, earning praise from Real coach Jose Mourinho.
“Benzema has improved all-round, every aspect of his game. He is stronger, both in his body and in his mind, and understands the game a lot better,” said Mourinho last November.
“We know that he can be a clinical striker of the ball, but he has also improved his defensive game. For me, finally the real Benzema is playing for Madrid.”
Two years ago, Benzema was overlooked for the 2010 World Cup and was struggling to settle at Real despite being one of president Florentino Perez’s boys.
Things have changed radically since Benzema took advice from Mourinho and Blanc, who suggested he needed a much better diet to make his mark.
A summer trip to Merano, Italy, to a high performance clinic helped Benzema get into shape and meet the demands of top level football, earning praise from Blanc.
“Benzema has learned from his past mistakes,” he said. “The important thing is not to repeat mistakes and we believe that Benzema is one of the best strikers in Europe when he is fit.”
And fit he now is.
Benzema became Real’s first choice number nine at the expense of Argentine Gonzalo Higuain, becoming the most prolific French striker in La Liga history ahead of Zinedine Zidane.
Benzema also showed great improvement with Les Bleus, scoring five goals from 17 appearances under Blanc, notably against Brazil and England.
He also put France on track in their qualifying campaign with a scintillating performance against Bosnia in Sarajevo, scoring one in a 2-0 victory that made up for a 1-0 home loss to Belarus.
Benzema, who was groomed at Lyon from the age of nine, made his professional debut aged 17 in 2005, bursting into the limelight in the 2007-08 season as he scored the only goal in France’s 1-0 friendly home win against Austria for his first cap.
He failed, however, to become a world-class player after moving to Real Madrid, where he was kept out of the side by Higuain.
Too nonchalant and with little desire to fight for his place, Benzema drew strong cristicism from Mourinho, who justified leaving him out of the team with the colourful assertion: “If you go hunting with a good dog you catch more. If you go with a cat, you catch less.”
The feline comparison, however, appears to have had the desired effect and a fitter, leaner and hungrier-looking Benzema is now typically preferred to Higuain in the starting line-up for big games.
He has forged highly effective on-field partnerships with Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Mesut Ozil, both scoring goals and dishing them up on a plate for team-mates.
Whether his France team mates will be able to follow him on that path may define their performance at the Euro finals. (Additional reporting by Iain Rogers in Madrid; Editing by Tim Collings/Mike Collett; email@example.com; +33149495370)