Karim Benzema responded to criticism of his recent form with a goal that helped him to make some history.
Benzema scored Real Madrid’s first goal in the 3-1 win over Napoli on Wednesday, helping move his club closer to the quarterfinals of the Champions League and surpassing Thierry Henry as the top French scorer in the European competition with 51 goals.
“It was a great night,” said Benzema, who was voted player of the match. “We all played a great match. I’m very happy with my display today. I feel good as I saw that the fans were supporting me after the goal. That’s important for my confidence.” It was the type of night Benzema needed to put behind a series of disappointing performances. He hadn’t scored in six games and was making headlines for his numerous missed chances.
“I’ve dealt with criticism since a young age,” the 29-year-old Benzema said. “I work very hard, but sometimes you score many goals and sometimes you don’t. I’m not the type of striker that only wants to score. I like to play for the team as well.”
Benzema scored with a header from close range in the 18th minute after a well-placed cross by Dani Carvajal. Benzema hadn’t found the net since a late equalizer against Sevilla in a Copa del Rey match in early January. The striker almost added another in a breakaway just before halftime, but his attempt struck the post.
“He showed that he has personality and that in difficult moments, like the one he had been going through recently, he answers the best possible way, by scoring goals,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “He hadn’t been scoring in the last few games and I’m happy with his goal and his play in general.”
Benzema’s poor performances had raised doubts about his future at the club. His contract runs through 2019, but the Spanish media said there were talks about a possible transfer involving the Frenchman in the near future. He has been an indisputable starter recently, though, especially with the lengthy absence of Gareth Bale because of a right ankle injury. Benzema started a few games on the bench, but only because of a rotation introduced by Zidane to rest players in a stretch with several games in a short period.
Benzema’s 51 goals in the Champions League came with both Madrid and his former French club, Lyon. He is Madrid’s top scorer in the European competition this season with five goals, three more than anyone else in the team, including Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
In one last comforting moment for Benzema on Wednesday, he got a loud ovation from the crowd at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium when he was substituted in the 81st. “I had a good time today,” he said.