- Karim Benzema has seen it all in a decade at Real Madrid, while Luka Jovic and Eden Hazard are part of a star-laden class of summer signings, and together they'll look to be a big part of the solution at the Bernabeu.
NEW YORK – After the season Real Madrid endured in 2018-2019, there's no match that serves solely as a means to go through the motions as the club prepares for the year ahead.
Real Madrid concludes its summer tour of the U.S. against Atletico Madrid in the International Champions Cup on Friday night at MetLife Stadium, and the match is more than just an average preseason tune-up–but not because it's a derby of sorts against its city rival.
Last season's disastrous campaign for Real Madrid included the club being knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16 by Ajax, finishing in third in La Liga (eight points behind Atletico Madrid and 19 points behind Barcelona) and suffering a Copa del Rey semifinal exit to Barcelona. It all came on the heels of selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus, which preceded the club ultimately cycling through three managers: Julen Lopetegui, who sacrificed the chance to coach Spain at the World Cup for 14 tumultuous games with Real; Santiago Solari, who stepped in for Loptegeui in the interim, earned a three-year contract, then was promptly fired after compiling a 22-8-2 record; and Zinedine Zidane, who returned to the club to play the role of savior less than a year after walking away on his own terms following a third straight Champions League title.
Given all of that, Friday’s game, and others that follow, are part of a larger theme. Real Madrid is looking to press the reset button and reclaim its place as a Spanish and European giant. It's spent roughly $345 million in trying to do that, luring attacking stars Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic and Rodrygo and defenders Ferland Mendy and Eder Militão to the Bernabeu–and it may not be done shopping and remaking its squad yet, either. One constant through the club's highs and lows has been Karim Benzema, and the 31-year-old French forward views this summer as a new start, a clean slate and a chance to bring all of the new elements together before the results really matter.
“Last year is gone. It’s gone," Benzema told SI.com. "Now we are ready for a new page, a new stage and that’s how we’re seeing it this preseason. To win titles and give it our all for the club.
“Regardless of what happened last season, it doesn’t matter. This is a new year and we’re always going to have this winning mentality, to be champion and win it all for Real Madrid, which in my opinion, is the greatest club in the world. We know that it’s never going to be easy, because when you play [at] Madrid, there’s always a target on your head, but we are working hard on winning it all and returning to the top.”
After scoring 21 goals in La Liga last season–just the third time he's eclipsed the 20-goal barrier in league play in Madrid–it’s fair to say that the French striker was one of the only shining lights for the club in its lost campaign. Now, as Benzema, the club's sixth all-time leading scorer, celebrates the 10-year anniversary of his arrival from Lyon, he has one specific goal for 2019-2020: be a part of even more.
“Personally, I don’t have a specific number I want to hit. All I can tell you is that I want to score and help create goals. That’s it,” he said. “I just want to help this club win, and if I’m helping by scoring goals and assists, then that’s it. That’s what I’ll do.”
Benzema is a popular character inside the locker room. He, along with veterans like Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, has seen it all and understands the responsibility of leading the team, especially during times of adversity both on off the pitch. While there's an air of optimism surrounding the club's reclamation project, there’s also some summer drama. Above all else, there's the Gareth Bale dilemma. His future seems less certain than ever at the Bernabeu after Zidane made blunt comments last weekend about his impending exit and has been peppered with questions regarding the Welsh star ever since. Marco Asensio tore his ACL and meniscus in an ICC bout vs. Arsenal this week and is likely done for the season.
After so much time with the club, Benzema is able to keep calm, knowing that obstacles are inevitable–especially at a circus like Real Madrid.
He attributes plenty of his success and mentality to Zidane. After scoring a hat trick against Athletic Bilbao back in April, the manager called Benzema the best No. 9 in world. Needless to say, Benzema was ecstatic that the manager returned to the club.
“Zidane is a legend, he knows it all," Benzema said. "As a player, as a manager. And it’s great to see him here. Love him. Having him here is fantastic for the club.”
Zidane alone, as evidenced by last season's sputtering to the finish line, cannot make the difference. The summer arrivals acting in concert with Zidane and strong pieces of the club's existing foundation, however, can. Benzema believes Hazard, for instance, is the exact type of player Madrid needs in order to reclaim the domestic and continental thrones.
“I mean, what can we say about him? He’s world-class," Benzema said. "I love his style and how he plays, because it’s quick, one-two touch football. Eden is always looking to go forward, to be direct and always looking to create. And I love that kind of player, who’s always looking ahead. Very happy he’s here.”
Another player Benzema is excited about and will work closely with is his new strike partner, Jovic. The 21-year-old Serbian star on the rise arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt for a reported fee of $67.5 million following a season in which he scored 27 goals in all competitions. There’s a connection already brewing between the two, and Benzema is eager to strengthen the bond.
“It’s early, but we have a good relationship," Benzema said. "He’s young, but he’s important for us, and it’s my intent to help him in any way that I can. On and off the pitch. From the first day of preseason we’ve been together, and I’ve been helping. He is young, but he can succeed here, no doubt. He knows he needs to work extremely hard in order to succeed here at Madrid.”
Luckily for Benzema, Jovic is aware of the magnitude of his move and the responsibility that comes with it.
“I have arrived at the best club in the world. And I will fight for my time on the pitch,” Jovic told SI.com with the help of a translator. “The moment I joined Real Madrid I knew the pressure that comes with my arrival and what’s expected of me. I want to show everyone that I am more than ready to show what I can do. I am going to give everything that I have in order to succeed.”
The fact that he’s 21 is actually bewildering, as his mature, humble, no-nonsense personality gives the impression that one may be talking to a 15-year veteran. But Real Madrid knows the picture that it’s painting in its attack. Benzema, Hazard and Jovic are the past, present and future of a club that looks to reclaim its championship status.
“Karim can teach me a lot of things,” Jovic said. “I am very happy to learn from him, and hopefully at one point I can be at his level.”
Playing under Zidane is a dream come true for Jovic, who grew up watching and trying to imitate his skills.
“Every time I watched him play, I would just watch in awe and just be amazed by his skills," Jovic said. "Playing for him is a dream. If anything, I am just so proud to play for him.”
It’s evident that Jovic is still slightly overwhelmed by the media attention and the excessive traveling required by a Real Madrid player. Whatever he went through previously with Frankfurt, Benfica and Red Star Belgrade pales in comparison to the Real Madrid experience.
“It’s been difficult with all this traveling, so being back in Madrid will be easier for me as I can just be closer to home and get used to living in Spain," Jovic said. "We’ve been traveling for a long time, so I am also looking forward to just feeling situated in Madrid.”
Feeling situated in Madrid.
That's been a missing ingredient for the club as a whole over the last 14 months. It's certainly something it would love to achieve in short order after incorporating so many new parts, which is why each step along the way matters just a little bit more than the average summer exercise.