220310 Benzema
Real Madrid's Karim Benzema. Image Credit: Reuters

When Atletico Madrid strengthened their squad with the arrival of Antoine Griezmann from Barcelona they looked like the favourites to defend their La Liga title.

They had pipped Real Madrid in the 2020-21 season and when the 2021/22 campaign began, Carlo Ancelotti’s side were by no means favourites for domestic silverware or to lift the Champions League trophy. Their squad no longer boasted the talents of Sergio Ramos or Raphael Varane at the back while Gareth Bale was stuck on the bench. Cristiano Ronaldo had long gone and there had been a void ever since the superstar left the Bernabeu.

But Karim Benzema stepped up to fill that void and almost single handedly drenched the club with success.

Outstanding season

The France international had arguably the most outstanding season of his life in which he helped Los Blancos win their 13th Champions League. In total he scored 44 goals in 46 games as he helped the Spanish giants also win the La Liga. His exploits have won him the Ballon d’Or for the first time and he sure deserves the award.

On 12 of the previous 13 occasions Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo won the honour seven and five times respectively. 34-year-old Benzema, who is expected to play a key role for France at the World Cup in Qatar which starts on 20 November, becomes the first Frenchman to win the prize since Zinedine Zidane in 1998.

Over the course of 12 months he has been on fire and it was a foregone conclusion that he would be picking up the golden ball in Paris. His talismanic performances for Real were nothing short of incredible. He kicked off the season by winning the Nations League last October against Spain in which he scored in the final.

We kind of felt then that 2021/22 was going to be the year he announced his status as Europe’s most elite striker. On the way to becoming a Champions League and La Liga double winner, he picked up the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, won the inaugural Champions League Player of the Season, was named La Liga Player of the Season and also topped the goalscoring charts in both the Champions League and La Liga.

He ended the league campaign with 27 goals in 32 games to win the Pichichi Trophy but he saved his best performances for the Champions League where in 12 games he scored 15. The highlight was his stunning 17-minute hat-trick against Paris Saint-Germain. He had earlier grabbed three against Chelsea. And he tucked away three over the semi-final tie against Manchester City which sent Real to the final.

Champions League heroics

His heroics in UEFA’s elite club competition meant he deserved to be crowned Ballon d’Or 2022 winner. He faced some competition for the award from Robert Lewandowski who enjoyed a super goalscoring season - 35 in the Bundesliga for Bayern Munich and 13 in the Champions League. But the Polish international could not inspire the Germans beyond the quarter-finals.

Sadio Mane, brought in to replace Lewandoski, ran him close but Messi wasn’t even nominated for the award after an underwhelming first season at PSG while Ronaldo was never really in contention despite being Manchester United’s top scorer last season. He may have produced moments of magic for the Old Trafford club but the team finished outside of the top four and hardly made a dent in Europe. Liverpool’s Mo Salah once again impressed but losing the African Cup of Nations with Egypt in February saw a slight drop off in form. Kevin de Bruyne had a great season for Man City but in all honesty nobody came close to matching Benzema’s exploits.

He is, without a shadow of a doubt, a very worthy winner.

What is the Ballon d'Or?
The Ballon d'Or is an annual football award presented by French news magazine France Football since 1956. It was conceived by sports writers Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran. The Ballon d'Or award honours the male player deemed to have performed the best over the previous year, based on voting by 100 football journalists. Argentina star Lionel Messi has won the most Ballons d'Or in history with seven awards. Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is second on the list with five.