Benzema was called a 'pussycat' by Mourinho but could make history

PETE JENSON: Karim Benzema was derided by Jose Mourinho as a ‘pussycat’ in his early days at Real Madrid, but the master marksman can make history in Paris if he helps Los Blancos roar to glory in Paris

  • Real Madrid beat Manchester United to the signing of Karim Benzema in 2009
  • He had a tough start and was described by Jose Mourinho as a ‘pussycat’
  • Benzema has since gone on to become one of the world’s greatest strikers
  • He could  equal Cristiano Ronaldo’s five Champions League medals on Saturday

He could win his fifth Champions League with Real Madrid on Saturday and if he does, a first Ballon d’Or will surely follow.

But Karim Benzema could easily have ended up at Manchester United in 2009 instead of Spain.

Back when Real Madrid rarely lost out on a transfer target, they battled with Sir Alex Ferguson for a 21-year-old who France Football magazine had dubbed ‘Zinaldo’ because he had Zinedine Zidane’s technique and was as prolific as Brazil striker Ronaldo. Zidane helped Madrid get their man, advising president Florentino Perez to visit him in the Bron neighbourhood of Lyon where he had grown up.

Karim Benzema could make history if Real Madrid win Saturday’s Champions League final

It worked because he agreed to sign and embarked on a 13-year record-breaking career which could peak against Liverpool in Paris. France Football were right too — ‘Zinaldo’ fits perfectly for a player who combines the ability to assist and finish like no one else.

Madrid signed Cristiano Ronaldo that same summer and it was Ronaldo’s departure from Old Trafford that prompted Ferguson to go after Benzema, who he had seen playing for Lyon against United in the Champions League.

Rio Ferdinand told BT Sport: ‘Sir Alex wanted him to sign after that game (in 2008). He was speaking to him in the tunnel after the match and I remember some of their officials came and ushered him away.’

When they missed out, Ferguson said: ‘When it went to £42million, it was beyond his value. We went to £35m and I think that was fair.’

He has come a long way since struggling under Jose Mourinho who called him a ‘pussycat’

But the suggestion that Madrid outbid United is not shared by Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas who said: ‘We sold him to Madrid even though United had made a superior offer.’

Benzema said in his presentation in 2009: ‘I’ve wanted to play for Madrid since I was 15 years old.’

A glance at his social media this week and there is a sense that he felt betrayed by Kylian Mbappe choosing to stay at Paris Saint-Germain rather than joining him in Madrid.

‘I enjoy playing alongside him for France so why not for Madrid,’ Benzema had said earlier this season. ‘With Mbappe in the Real Madrid team we would score twice as many goals.’

Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to sign Benzema before he joined Madrid

Benzema struggled for goals when he arrived at Madrid, scoring just nine in his first season. Jose Mourinho arrived in his second year and famously said: ‘When I don’t have my dog, I will have to go hunting with my cat,’ in reference to having to pick Benzema when others were injured.

Off the field he struggled with his Spanish and there were embarrassing images of his yellow Lamborghini being towed away with its front wing stoved in — twice. He also hit a tree driving home from his first Clasico and last year was handed a suspended jail sentence and fine for his involvement in a historic sex-tape extortion scandal.

Madrid never lost patience and this season that decision has been vindicated more than in any other. He has 44 goals in 45 games including 15 in the Champions League and goes into the final needing one more to become Real’s second highest all-time scorer behind Ronaldo. He recently levelled with Raul in second place on 323 goals, reaching the tally in 604 games when Raul needed 741.

Benzema has 44 goals in 45 games this season including 15 in the Champions League

Benzema could match Cristiano Ronaldo’s five Champions League winner medals

He has a year left on his contract but shows no sign of slowing down at 34, and the bond between president and player has endured, which is why he has survived eight different coaches at the club.

Benzema never complained about Mourinho’s ‘pussycat’ criticism. That is why he didn’t feel the need to apologise to Vinicius Junior when tunnel microphones caught him telling Ferland Mendy not pass to Vinicius at half-time of a match in October because ‘it’s like he’s playing for the other side’.

The message was that criticism can be harsh but you have to be able to take it if you want to reach the top. Benzema has — and on Saturday he can equal Ronaldo’s five Champions League winner’s medals.

If he scores twice he will equal the Portugal superstar’s record for most Champions League goals in one season.

He has proved more than a match for the player Ferguson wanted him to replace at Old Trafford 13 years ago.

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