The two forwards have been well below the fantastic form they showed last season and their poor performances are a concern in the build-up to Wednesday’s Champions League clash
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Jose Mourinho was happy at last – or so it seemed. The Portuguese coach has been linked with a string of prospective centre-forwards since arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2010, but aside from the emergency signing of Emmanuel Adebayor in the winter window during his first season, none have been brought in. And following a stellar season from both Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain last term, he finally seemed satisfied with his striker situation.
But things have not gone to plan in 2012-13.
The duo barely stopped scoring last season, netting 58 goals between them in a healthy rivalry which appeared to push each man to even greater heights. Mourinho expected more of the same this time, but he has been left disappointed as the pair have managed just 21 goals in the current campaign. And ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 clash against Manchester United, a side with an embarrassment of riches up front, it is a far from satisfactory scenario.
The problems began in the summer. Higuain was overlooked in the big matches last season and was very close to leaving the club, with Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain both interested in recruiting the popular Argentine, who also attracted interest from the Premier League. Mourinho convinced him to stay and promised the player more first-team opportunities, so the 25-year-old began the season as the preferred choice in attack, which only served to upset Benzema.
|MADRID’S MISFIRING FORWARDS
Higuain’s superior fitness in the opening weeks of the season (Benzema returned later due to his participation at Euro 2012) meant he was the logical selection in any case, but he hardly grabbed his opportunity. Early-season form was promising and goals arrived in the opening rounds of La Liga, but too many clear-cut chances went astray and the team’s form proved poor.
The one exception was the Spanish Supercopa against Barcelona. Madrid played well and Higuain scored in the second leg of that two-game series, but squandered several chances to put the tie out of the Catalans’ reach. And his misses almost proved costly as 10-men Barca pulled a goal back before the interval in the second match and came within a whisker of a last-minute strike from Lionel Messi which would have sealed an aggregate win for the Blaugrana. Had that happened, the spotlight would have fallen on the wasteful Higuain.
In the meantime, Benzema told L’Equipe he was unhappy at spending “more time on the bench than on the pitch”. In his press conference the following day, Mourinho hit back by saying: “I spend every minute of every game on the bench.” It was hardly the reply the Frenchman had been hoping to hear.
But while Higuain responds to an arm around his shoulder and is very much a confidence player, Benzema reacts to a public challenge, just as he did in 2010-11 when Mourinho – deprived of the injured Argentine – claimed his team “would hunt less with a cat” (in a barbed reference to the Frenchman).
Benzema quickly improved following that public put-down and proved his point at home to Manchester City in the Champions League earlier this season, netting a great goal to level the scores as Madrid faced a damaging defeat, before Cristiano Ronaldo hit a dramatic late winner. Now the man on form was clearly the former Olympique Lyonnais man, yet still he flattered to deceive away from the Bernabeu and the two have also spent spells on the sidelines through injury this term.
So having been pleased with both last season, Mourinho has been convinced by neither in 2012-13. And the Portuguese hit out at the two of them after last weekend’s defeat at Granada. “I know why some players were tired because they played on Wednesday and worked hard,” he said, in reference to the Clasico against Barcelona. But he added: “I don’t know why others were tired, because on Wednesday they were on the bench or in the stands.”
|“I don’t know why some players were tired [after the Clasico] because on Wednesday they were on the bench or in the stands…”
– Jose Mourinho after the defeat against Granada
Benzema featured for less than half an hour in the Clasico, replacing Higuain after 64 minutes at the Bernabeu. Both should have been fresh for Saturday, then – but neither were. The Frenchman replaced the Argentine at half-time, with neither looking likely to score and he summed up Madrid’s miserable night as he fluffed a glorious chance with just minutes left as his coach flapped furiously on the sidelines.
But it’s not only the missed chances. Mourinho is unhappy at his forwards’ fitness, with both players currently lacking the intensity the coach demands. The Portuguese is not amused, and although La Liga is no longer a priority thanks to Barca’s hefty lead at the top, the hopes of an entire club rest on Wednesday’s Champions League clash against Manchester United, and both Benzema and Higuain need to shape up soon.
Madrid’s problems this term have been well-publicised, with Iker Casillas sidelined, dressing-room divisions disrupting the team, with injuries at the back and sloppy set-piece defending hardly helping. A striker crisis was just what their coach had hoped to avoid and there is now precious little time to revert the situation before meeting Manchester United on Wednesday. Whether Mourinho’s motivation and some extra fitness work can solve the problem remains to be seen, but Real Madrid’s season may just depend on it.
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