Jovic succeeds in being Benzema for night as Madrid leave rivals behind
Serbian outcast had played only 81 minutes all season but was brilliant after leaping off the bench to replace injured talisman
Karim Benzema was down on one knee which meant Real Madrid were down on theirs, or so it goes. Saturday had been good to them until then – Barcelona had lost at home to Real Betis and Atlético Madrid had been beaten by Real Mallorca with on-loan Take Kubo slipping past Jan Oblak in the last minute at the Metropolitano – but this was bad news, its significance expressed simply. A couple of words and a couple of explanation marks would do: Benzema and off. It was cold, wet, noisy and 0-0 at Real Sociedad where no one had won and only one team had even scored, and that was because of a 90th minute mistake that left goalkeeper Alex Remiro in tears. Now the visitors’ top scorer, the man who is irreplaceable, had to be replaced.
He had lasted 15 minutes. As he went, pointing at his left leg, Benzema threw his shirt into the crowd where it was grabbed by a man it wasn’t meant for. He headed up the stairs past the glass-fronted VIP boxes built into the tunnel – “the zoo,” some call it – and turned left towards the dressing room. He took 17 goals and eight assists with him, 12 and seven in the league. When he first glanced to the bench, Carlo Ancelotti had signalled to stay calm, which he could have directed at everyone else as much as at his captain and which wasn’t easy to do. No one has more goals or assists than Benzema; the man unexpectedly taking his place didn’t have any at all. Luka Jovic hadn’t played a game’s worth of football let alone produced a goal or an assist: 81 minutes he had been on the pitch all season. He hadn’t scored for Madrid in 664 days.
Forty-one minutes later, he had both and Madrid had the title tied up. Jovic’s neat lay off supplied Vinícius to open the scoring, then he dived in to head a second, taking Madrid eight points clear. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Benzema had pulled up, Carlos Martínez, the commentator on Spanish television, had insisted: “this is no joke.” Alongside him, former Madrid player, academy coach, lead singer in rock band Pig Noise and one of the media’s most astute analysts, Álvaro Benito, said: “The difference between what you have on the pitch and on the bench is gigantic.”
Recently debate has turned to why Ancelotti doesn’t rotate, especially with the run Madrid were embarking upon: Sevilla, Athletic, Real Sociedad, Inter and Atlético in 14 days. In the three played so far, nine of the 11 players have started every game and putting Lucas Vázquez in for Dani Carvajal against Athletic was forced. When it comes to choosing a team, 10 are virtually guaranteed and the 11th is a choice between Rodrygo and Marcos Asensio. Saturday was Vinicius’s 20th consecutive start. Six players have over 1,000 league minutes, and that would probably be nine had Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy and Toni Kroos been fit at the beginning: Mendy has started seven of the last eight in La Liga, Carvajal five of seven, Kroos eight of 10.
If the idea to begin with was to rotate that has been left aside, at least for now. Ancelotti doesn’t see the need to rest players on the assumption of a tiredness he doesn’t see – “I don’t want to change what’s going well for a supposition”– or why decisions made now should depend on hypothetical fatigue in April. Rather than rotate during this run, the idea appears to be to get through it, gathering points that can’t be taken off you and resting after if needs be. That idea is applied within games: “you can play 60 minutes with players with more quality then use players with more energy in the remaining 30,” Ancelotti says.
Madrid’s coach has been constrained by injuries: Fede Valverde’s absence in particular denied room for manoeuvre. Players prefer not to sit out: “I feel better when I play than when I rest,” 36-year-old Luka Modric said. And at heart there’s something simple expressed in Ancelotti’s comments: some players are better than others. Implicit in that is there are footballers you’re unconvinced by, squad members you don’t entirely trust, a suspicion that you don’t have anyone to rotate with. While there’s an element of Catch 22 to confront – footballer doesn’t get more opportunities because he’s not good enough, footballer isn’t good enough because he doesn’t get more opportunities – the bottom line is: you want your good players on the pitch.
And that’s Benzema, not Jovic.
Only six players have ever cost Madrid more than Jovic – Zinedine Zidane, Kaká, Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodríguez and Edin Hazard. But a little out of place, still young, undemonstrative, he had not really settled or integrated since joining the club for €60m, considered perhaps the outstanding striker in Europe at the time. He got injured a bit, he got Covid, he got in trouble for breaking lockdown back in Serbia – they said he was out celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday, he said he was popping to the pharmacy – got injured training at home, and he went back to Germany on loan seeking chances he wasn’t getting in Spain, immediately scoring twice in 28 minutes. And that was pretty much that.
It’s not so much that he had been bad as that he just hadn’t been at all; it’s not just that he had not scored for Madrid since February 2020, during which time Benzema has 54, it’s that he had only scored twice in his career there and neither had mattered much. One was a late fifth in a 5-0 win over Leganés, the other a late fourth in a 4-1 win against Osasuna. The most significant thing he had done in Spain was get away with a handball that would have saved Leganés on the final day of the 2019-20 season.
Until now. Now he had only gone and won them the league. Well, sort of. Madrid had not had a day as good as this for 79 years: according to Marca, that was the last time they had won and Barcelona and Atlético had both lost. “We knew the scores and that gave us a boost,” Modric said. Jovic’s goal and assist put Madrid eight points ahead of Sevilla, having played a game more. They’re nine points above Betis, 10 ahead of Atlético and Real Sociedad, 16 in front of Barcelona. No team has ever been eight or more points clear this late and not won the league. “If they beat Atlético next weekend, there’s no point in the league,” former Rayo Vallecano coach Paco Jémez claimed.
When it mattered most, Madrid had done it, Carlo Ancelotti quietly leading his team to eight wins a row. They have started this defining run with nine points from nine. No rotation, just results. It might not always have convinced and it has not always gone exactly as planned – Sevilla were the better side last weekend and after they somehow defeated Athletic 1-0 in midweek, Marcelino García Toral insisted: “I’ve been in football a long time and I have never seen anything like it” – but it worked. This time it did convince, Madrid preventing la Real from having a shot on target and scoring twice as many as la Real had let in all season at home.
Which is not to say it was planned, exactly. “Who the hell would have bet a single cent on Jovic being Benzema for the night?” asked El País. Had it gone wrong, there might have been criticism for pushing Benzema or not giving Jovic minutes sooner. And yet the Frenchman’s injury does not look serious and this served as another reminder that there is no such thing as a bad footballer at Madrid. Te last time Benzema was forced to miss a game Mariano made his only appearance all year and produced a neat backheel for Vinicius to score against Elche. This time, it was Jovic providing. “It hasn’t been easy season for him but we are trying to give him to confidence to wait for his time,” Modric said. “He showed we can count on him.”
Doing so is not so easy, still less when you haven’t done so before. Ancelotti recently revealed that a player told him that the footballer who is not pissed off at being left out is no footballer at all. Nor can you necessarily count on teammates to support their claim for a place. “You have to say that, but I know, I was a player: the player just wants to play. He wants you to put them on the pitch, that’s it,” Ancelotti said on Saturday. “The most difficult part of my job is this. If the player who doesn’t play suffers, they are not happy, and for me it is impossible. Only 11 play, but the performance of Jovic means the atmosphere is good. You know that on the bench there are players who can play, who deserve to play, because they are serious and motivated in training and Luka Jovic is one of them.”