Kylian might be coming, but King Karim still reigns for Real

On a night when the world was desperate to talk about Bernabéu-bound Kylian Mbappé, his fellow countryman Karim Benzema ensured any conversation of the coronation of a new king in Madrid would have to be put on hold.

Benzema’s hat-trick saw Real progress in stunning fashion over PSG. (Photo Credit – PSG/Getty)

We already had the narrative nailed down at the interval. The story was unfolding before our very eyes. 

Three weeks after he scored the winner in front of a jubilant Parc de Princes, Kylian Mbappé, the boy born to be a Galático, was going to be the decider again.

The decider when the decision on his future looms ever larger, creeps ever closer. In truth, it may already have been made. Yet to sign a new deal in Paris, conspicuously coy about where he’ll be playing his football next season, all eyes were on the young superstar. 

And what makes a superstar is a night like this. With all the talk pre-match around him, with all the pressure on his shoulders, with all the knowledge in the world that this stadium, these fans, that famous white strip, may well be his next season – still, he showed up.

His goal in the 39th minute devastated those Real fans who had applauded his arrival despite his opposition colours. The killer pace that strikes fear into the world’s greatest defenders got him into the position to score, the intelligence to deceive Thibaut Courtois before slamming the ball home got him into the position to etch a game into our memories forever. 

It looked to be deja vu from Paris three weeks prior. (Photo Credit – Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty)

Early in the second half, he electrified again. In behind in a flash, this time he humbled the Belgian goalkeeper, sublimely dummying the shot as the ball rolled through his own legs, allowing him the space to slot beyond Courtois. The offside flag was up, but so was Mbappé’s already lofty stock. Only a star could do something like that in a game like this.

He most likely will go to Real Madrid in the summer, displaying sheer gluttony is his evisceration of backlines and his procurement of trophies. But before he departs his hometown, in what is sure to be an emotional farewell, he’d give his fellow Parisians a night to savour in Spain. 

“Bon adieu, Paris Saint-Germain,” the Frenchman would say. Indeed. Just not the Frenchman we were expecting.

Because on a night where everything seemed to be coming up Kylian, his compatriot, a player who wears the boots he is slated to fill, showed the world that the time for change is not yet upon us. 

Benzema & Mbappé won the Nations League together last year. (Photo Credit – Franck Fife/AFP/Getty)

Footballers across the continent may be scared of Mbappé, but Karim Benzema certainly isn’t one of them. Just as the 23-year-old was writing his signature into the Bernabéu history books, he was reminded of a name that fills so many of the existing pages. 

Underrated beyond belief, Benzema’s 309 goals in 592 games for Real Madrid are frankly extraordinary. Had it not been for two aliens on either side of the El Clásico divide obliterating the sport’s goalscoring standards in recent times, we’d talk about his contributions as legendary. We still should.

Because throughout those 13 storied years in the Spanish capital, particularly in the last half-decade, Benzema has become a player who does exactly what he did on Wednesday night. He scores big goals, often stunning goals, with the kind of effortless grace that reminds you why they named this game the beautiful one.

Not shy of gritting his teeth beside all the majesty however, exemplified by the leveller on the night. Bearing down on Gianluigi Donnarumma, getting in the young goalkeeper’s face so aggressively that his only option was to feebly nudge the ball off to the side, he told everyone watching that the 2-0 aggregate score line was far from game over. 

Vinícius Júnior, another starlet gushed over in conversation about Real’s future, simply had to knock the ball into the feet of Real’s past and present, whose predatory instincts meant the outcome was inevitable. Coolly dispatched, we had a game on our hands. 

PSG have been on the wrong side of incredible UCL comebacks in Spain before. (Photo Credit – Laurence Griffiths/Getty)

PSG’s Champions League frailties are well-known, perhaps nowhere more so than in the country of Spain. You sensed that if anyone could exploit those frailties, if anyone was going to make this a game of psychological warfare against Mauricio Pochettino’s army of world beaters, it was going to be the man who struck just after the hour. 

He’d need back-up though, and more than willing to oblige was someone who’d contributed to so many of Benzema’s previous glory days and nights, Luka Modrić. 

The Croatian pinched the ball deep inside his own half before driving forward with forceful intent. His experience too told him that this game was not beyond their reach. Times may have changed dramatically, but in the dugout to his right stood Carlo Ancelotti, and spearheading his attack was Benzema. This was the Champions League. This was Real Madrid. This wasn’t over yet. 

After beautifully releasing Vinícius on the left, the ball was worked back to Modrić’s feet. He’d be damned if the only Madrid player turning back the clock was Benzema, so in supplying him, released an outrageous reverse pass that glided through the legs of Presnel Kimpembe and into the path of his old friend. 

Rightfully so, the pass will take the plaudits for this one. But as we were shown the replays to see if VAR was going to cruelly deprive us of such a glorious assist, Benzema’s innate intelligence was on full display. 

He creeped forward in slow, stealthy movements, to the point of being fractionally onside, before swivelling and scoring with the help of a deflection to tie up the game and set us up for a frantic finish. 

What proved to be frantic was Real’s seizing of the tie, however. Before we could catch our breath from Real’s leveller, before PSG could even fathom the prospect of surrendering another Champions League lead, Benzema had scored the best of the bunch.

Tails firmly up, a ferocious restart from Real saw Vinícius bearing down on goal again. His countryman Marquinhos did well to stifle his exuberance as he claimed the ball, desperately poking it away in any direction as the Ligue 1 leaders looked for some clarity amid the white noise.

With the ball bobbling awkwardly following the defender’s harried clearance, most players would have seen their effort sail into the sea of Spaniards watching on. Karim Benzema isn’t most players. 

The presence of mind to stay over the ball, the technique of the outside of the boot finish, the placement into the bottom corner, and the ease with which he did it all showed everyone why Benzema is a man to be marvelled.  

In a split second, he forced football fans off their feet and into a state of unavoidable acknowledgement of the striker before them. 

A striker who, at 34, is now the oldest player in history to score a Champions League hat-trick. A striker who, at 34, now lies third in Real Madrid’s all-time scoring chart, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Raúl. A striker who, at 34, isn’t ready for anyone to take his spot. 

Mbappé’s destiny dictates that he will one day soak up the adulation and admiration of Madristas around the globe. If that day comes sooner rather than later, he can’t expect to take up the throne immediately. 

Real’s loyal subjects may have witnessed what their prince will provide them in the future, but for now, Benzema shows in all his regal manner that the king still lives. And long live the king. 

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