For nine years, Karim Benzema was Cristiano Ronaldo's muse, doing everything to benefit his Portuguese teammate. Ronaldo wouldn't have scored as many goals as he did without Benzema's selflessness. But the Frenchman was never praised for his deceiving runs or off-the-ball movement. He was whistled by the fans because he missed chances and hit fewer goals than expected.
Ronaldo had to leave for all of that to change.
Benzema is now playing like the No. 9 he was signed to be - and he's getting the props he's always deserved. Already with four goals in La Liga, the 31-year-old is distinguishing himself not only as Real Madrid's go-to player but as the best striker in Europe.
It's a shame one of the best forwards of his generation had to wait so long to get this chance. Not that Benzema ever complained. He lost weight when he was told to and answered every one of his critics. He did what each of his managers asked him to do, and took on a leadership role along the way. Carlo Ancelotti called Benzema one of his "energizers" at Madrid, a personality whose words and actions buoyed the rest of the team.
He's now participated in 59 of Madrid's last 61 league matches dating back to January 2018, becoming indispensable to manager Zinedine Zidane. No matter where Madrid played - in the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, the Club World Cup - Benzema made himself available. He even passed on surgery on a broken finger in January knowing how much Madrid - then in the midst of a tailspin - needed him.
But he had to fight for that respect. From the moment he was unveiled at the Santiago Bernabeu, he was a small part of a bigger story. An estimated 80,000 people turned up to see Ronaldo for the first time in 2009 and another 55,000 showed up for Kaka. Thankful as he was, Benzema only drew around 20,000.
Madrid president Florentino Perez signed Benzema because of his goal-scoring prowess. He scored 54 goals in his final two seasons with Lyon and had his pick of suitors. He could've joined Barcelona or Manchester United or Inter Milan. Each of those teams would've installed Benzema as their de facto No. 9 and handed him the reins to their attack. That wasn't the case in the Spanish capital.
It's unbelievable what he managed to do without playing in his natural role. He's the sixth-highest scorer in club history, 19th in La Liga's record books, and fourth all time in the Champions League. Benzema's statistics may have looked underwhelming beside Ronaldo's, but what he did in a secondary role is remarkable.
It was Benzema who fueled Ronaldo's arms race with Lionel Messi. Here was a striker by trade interchanging position with his wingers, covering 10 kilometers a game, and making endless runs that meant little to him but everything to his teammate. It's why he outlasted all the other strikers who came through Madrid's doors. He was more committed than Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, more patient than Gonzalo Higuain, and more versatile than Alvaro Morata. He carried out the defensive work Ronaldo was exempt from doing, especially when Madrid struggled to keep possession.
Think of the numerous El Clasico fixtures that required more football smarts than anything else. Benzema found and created space when Barcelona made it most difficult. One of his most memorable assists is his backheel flick to Ronaldo at the Camp Nou in March 2015. He interpreted everything within just a few seconds - darting into an open channel, receiving the pass, and kissing the ball with a perfect touch.
Gerard Houllier, who coached Benzema in Lyon, saw him as a "mix between Ronaldo for his sense of where the goal is and Zidane for his control of the ball."
Now, we're seeing more Ronaldo than Zidane.
During the 2018-19 La Liga campaign, Benzema took more shots than he had before. He's already fired 18 attempts in four league fixtures this season, putting him on track for another career high. Players like Isco and Lucas Vazquez are doing the grunt work while Benzema hovers around the penalty area and does, as he puts it, what's "true" to him. He's latching onto the end of moves instead of building them up. He's doing what he loves. This is his second act, and he's the star of the show.