The cat flashes his claws

January 7, 2012

Karim Benzema has shrugged off the disparaging label of being Real Madrid’s pussycat and turned himself into a fearsome feline under Jose Mourinho.

In the space of a year, the 24-year-old has gone from expensive bench warmer to first-choice leader of the line at the world’s richest club by revenue, and won over a skeptical coach.

Benzema was a match-winning substitute in Tuesday’s King’s Cup first leg win at home to Malaga, when a weakened side skulked in at halftime trailing 2-0.

The French international helped galvanise his team after the break, tormenting the visitors’ defence with his pace and link-up play and bursting through the middle to grab the comeback winner late on.

It was Mourinho who burdened Benzema with the ‘cat’ label in December 2010.

Gonzalo Higuain, Mourinho’s preferred number nine at the time, had just been ruled out with a long-term back injury and the coach was pressuring the club to bring in another striker in the January transfer window.

Benzema, a 35 million-Euro signing from Olympique Lyon in 2009, was struggling to adapt and after scoring eight goals in his first season had only managed six in 21 games when Higuain was sidelined.

“If you go hunting with a good dog, you catch more,” Mourinho said without naming names. “If you go with a cat, you catch less.”

The arrival of Emmanuel Adebayor on loan in January was further bad news for Benzema, but the Frenchman lifted his game and he finished the campaign with 26 goals in all competitions.

That said, he remained an unused substitute in the King’s Cup final and both legs of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona last April and May.

This season has been a different story. He has started three times against Barca scoring against them in the Spanish Super Cup and in La Liga in November.

His league goal after 23 seconds was the quickest ever in a ‘clasico’ and although Real lost 3-1 he was one of the only players to emerge from the game with any credit among the fans.

His abilities have never been in doubt, but it is hunger, his workrate and his attitude which have changed.

Benzema has scored 14 so far this season, is Real’s joint top scorer in the Champions League and was voted French player of the year for 2011 by France Football magazine.

“Jose Mourinho put me back on the right path,” Benzema said of the award.

After his match-winning display during the week he added: “I feel confident, and I’m in good shape. I try to do things now which before I didn’t dare do.”

With Real chasing honours on three fronts and France preparing for Euro 2012, Mourinho and Laurent Blanc will be purring with delight.

PHOTO: Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema winks as he celebrates after scoring against Malaga during their Spanish King’s Cup match at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, January 3, 2012. REUTERS/Juan Medina.

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