REAL Madrid forward Karim Benzema has had his critics of late but he answered them with a strong performance against Napoli in the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg.
Amid calls by fans and media for Real to rely more heavily on Spain international Alvaro Morata, Benzema, started his team’s comeback with an 18th-minute equalizer in the defending champion’s 3-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on Wednesday.
With a powerful header, Benzema scored his 51st goal in Europe’s elite club competition to overtake compatriot Thierry Henry and become the fifth highest goalscorer in the history of the competition.
“I am always happy with him,” Real coach Zinedine Zidane said of countryman, Benzema, on the club’s website. “He had been lacking goals in his recent games but I am happy with his goal and his general play.
“He links up brilliantly with the others and really makes them play.”
Benzema, whose last goal for Real had been in a 3-3 draw at Sevilla in the Copa del Rey on January 12, also stole several passes, created chances and forced Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina to make two saves.
He got a standing ovation from Real fans when he came off in the 81st minute.
“I’m really proud and happy with my display,” Benzema told Real’s website. “I now feel very good and after scoring the first goal, I felt that the fans were with me, that’s really important for your confidence.”
Competition for a starting place at Real is fierce and with Morata pushing for more playing time after returning to Real from Juventus last summer, Benzema has been under scrutiny. “Since a young age, I’ve lived with criticism,” the 29-year-old said. “I work hard and sometimes you score a lot of goals and on other occasions, you don’t.”