Karim Benzema's relationship with the Champions League goes back — far back.
His first taste of life among the continent's very elite came fully 17 years ago when the teenager lined up alongside John Carew and Sylvain Wiltord in a Lyon attacking line against Rosenborg. The baby-faced Benzema, typically, scored.
The years since have been fruitful for Benzema yet none of the intervening 16 campaigns can compare to this. The French striker returns to his capital city on Saturday afternoon on the brink of setting a new all-time scoring record in the competition and on the brink of guiding Real Madrid to perhaps their least likely triumph yet. Not bad for someone who will celebrate his 35th birthday this year.
"I think there are more and more players in this situation, who get better and better after they turn 30. I take good care of myself, I pay a lot of attention to what I do; I get as much rest as I can, I work harder, I find the time to work properly, and I think experience helps. That’s why I feel great today, both technically and mentally speaking," the Madrid captain said this week.
"When I was 19, 20, I was obsessed with football, with being on the pitch. And then, little by little, you realise that being on the pitch isn’t everything. There are a lot of other important things around it: eating well, sleeping well, getting enough rest, working in the gym, so many things that I didn’t used to do, as the way I saw it, football was only about what happened on the pitch."
Benzema has led the line imperiously for Carlo Ancelotti's side this season, spearheading the unlikely comebacks that have stunned PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City. Along the way he's scored 15 goals in 11 games, leaving him just two off Cristiano Ronaldo's single-season record.
"Records will always exist, and they are there to be broken," said Benzema. "For me, what matters the most is to give it my all on the pitch to help my team win; if I can score or assist goals, that’s important, but the most important thing is to step on the pitch and win the game.
"My favourite goal this season? The most beautiful is maybe the third goal against PSG or the penalty against Manchester City, but the header against Chelsea was good too because it was beautiful play."
Their journey to Paris has steeled Madrid for whatever situation arises against Liverpool, according to Benzema. An early deficit will not shake their belief.
"Those emotions will remain for life because our journey in the Champions League was not easy. We played against Paris Saint-Germain: they were favourites. We played against the defending champions, Chelsea. We played against last year’s finalists, Manchester City. So it proves that we are a very good team. [All this] shows that we don’t give up, that we have mental strength; a strong team that, with the help of our supporters, can turn any situation around."
"It’s my dream to win another Champions League. But we have to be really well prepared and play to win in the final."