FOX Soccer Exclusive
Collective, not competition for Real pair
Real Madrid goes into the first Clásico of La Liga as its leader, but unlike the corresponding situation last season, the club knows it will exit the weekend still in top spot, no matter what the result. Such is the increased certainty flowing through José Mourinho’s side, the prospect of choosing between Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín to start Saturday’s match at the Bernabéu is a rare sliver of doubt in the camp.
Both started the midweek Champions League match at Ajax, but it would be a seismic shock if that was the case again versus Barcelona. The pair represents two sharply divergent options, even if they are broadly similar in terms of on-paper profile - Higuaín turns 24 on the day of the Clásico while Benzema reaches the same age in little over a week’s time; the France international has scored seven in 12 La Liga matches (7 starts) this season, and Higuaín has rattled in 12 in 14 (also 7 starts).
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At the start of 2010-11, it would have been no contest. Higuaín had rattled in 27 La Liga goals in the previous season, while Benzema had endured a tough first year after a €35 million (US$47 million) move from Lyon, a transition which culminated in him being cut from the France squad for the 2010 World Cup. The brutality of his fall from grace in that debut season has marked a generation in France, with the likes of Kevin Gameiro and Yann M’Vila turning their backs on moves abroad last summer to avoid similar problems before Euro 2012.
Rumors abounded that Mourinho’s patience had quickly worn thin with a supposedly childlike player – somebody who was slow to pick up the language after arriving in Spain. Following his own landing in Madrid in 2010, it was thought Mourinho would seek to move the Frenchman on.
“I never thought about leaving,” Benzema insisted in an interview with So Foot in November. “When you’re at Madrid, where are you going to go? If the coach wanted me to leave, he would have told me. Mourinho, he says things to your face. He never gave up on me, and I thank him for that.”
Benzema scored 26 goals last season (15 in La Liga) but equally convincing in his favor were nine assists – all but one of which laid on goals for Cristiano Ronaldo. If Real Madrid’s game plan is based around playing to the strengths of its star, the Frenchman has a clear edge.
By the numbers: Benzema, Higuain
As his goal rate improves, Benzema's slow start at the Bernabeu drifts deeper into memory; not that Gonzalo Higuain has conceded the contest.
Perhaps the most curious feature of Benzema’s game is that despite having an acute appreciation of space and the players around him, and an ability to create as well as score, he is no tactical egghead. Benzema has said that he “never” talks tactics other than on the pitch or a few minutes before entering the game. This simply underlines how incredibly intuitive his game is.
This is an aspect that Mourinho has always appreciated in Benzema, but he sent his player to the same Italian ‘fat camp’ attended by French counterparts André-Pierre Gignac and Bafetimbi Gomis in the close season to further sharpen him up. “Mourinho didn’t expect me to change my game,” Benzema continued, “but he wanted more desire from me, for me to be a warrior on the pitch and to be hungry from the first to the last minute.”
Benzema’s setbacks have all helped to strengthen him, and missing out on the debacle in South Africa probably did him a favor in the long-term. That in particular appears to have served as a wake-up call after a number of PR gaffes in the past, such as remarking off the cuff that he would have preferred to play with the ‘real Ronaldo’ (Benzema’s one true soccer idol) on signing for El Real, and admitting later in 2009 that he didn’t enjoy playing for France, then under the chaotic reign of Raymond Domenech.
Higuaín has rarely been even in the same area code as controversy. Perhaps the closest he came was in rejecting an attempt by Domenech to call him up for France’s national team – Higuaín was born in the northwestern French city of Brest, when his father Jorge was playing there, before the family returned to Argentina when Pipita was still a toddler.
History has rather airbrushed Higuaín’s own initial struggle to make an impact in the Spanish capital. Arriving in December 2006 from Boca Juniors, a few days after his 19th birthday, it took him some time to get going. After a few months at the club, some wags in the written press glibly referred to him as ‘Igualín’, a pun on his name drawing on the Spanish word meaning ‘samey’.
Yet even in a far-from prolific first 18 months, he contributed. It was Higuaín’s last-minute winner in April 2007 against Espanyol at the Bernabéu that completed a comeback for 3-1 down and provided a crucial blow in a title race that was only won from Barcelona on the final day – on head-to-head record, after the two teams finished level on 76 points each. Higuaín only scored eight La Liga goals in the following campaign, but the penultimate one was another last-minute strike at Osasuna the ensured El Real would retain the championship in May 2008. Both efforts rubbish claims that he fails to make it count in big games.
The criticism has often surfaced that Higuaín ‘only’ scores goals, but his tireless industry has made him a fan favorite. Back in January 2010, with intense speculation that El Real would again bid for then-Arsenal captain Cesc Fábregas, Spanish daily Marca suggested that Higuaín would be offered to the north London club as a makeweight in a possible deal. In a subsequent poll, Madridistas showed exactly where their loyalties lay, with 87% of respondents saying they would rather keep Pipita than have the club sign Cesc.
Perhaps the new, improved El Real this season weights things slightly back in Higuaín’s direction – the team’s rather Barça-esque shift to high-intensity pressing and a more collective attacking game arguably makes Ronaldo a vital cog in the machine, rather than a beast that constantly demands feeding. Yet it was Benzema who started the last big encounter, against Valencia, and justified his inclusion with a stunning opening goal.
Both players have denied the existence of a rivalry, insisting they are both at the disposition of the team – expected, perhaps, from Higuaín, and a sign of Benzema’s growing maturity. “It’s anything but a problem to have two great forwards in top form,” Mourinho said recently. Whichever way he leaps, El Real is ready for Barça.
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