Why Karim Benzema Is France's Biggest World Cup Headache

Jonathan JohnsonFeatured ColumnistJune 4, 2014

Karim Benzema of France pose before the international friendly match between France and Netherlands at the Stade de France stadium, outside Paris, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Christophe Ena/Associated Press

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema is yet to feature for France as they continue to prepare for this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

The 26-year-old had only just returned from winning the UEFA Champions League with the Spanish giants when Les Bleus thumped Norway in Paris last Tuesday, so he and Real teammate Raphael Varane sat that one out along with the injured Franck Ribery. However, all three were absent once again when Didier Deschamps’ side took on Paraguay in Nice last Sunday.

Claude Paris/Associated Press

Speculation over a back injury continues to cloud Ribery’s potential participation in Brazil, per ESPN FC, but Benzema is confident he will not be prevented from taking part because of a few niggling fitness issues.

However, the expected return of the recently crowned European champion poses Deschamps some problems ahead of the final warm-up clash with Jamaica.

While Antoine Griezmann has made himself the obvious alternative to Ribery—if the 31-year-old is ruled out of the tournament—the only alternative to Benzema is Olivier Giroud. Led by the Arsenal man, the French had no trouble scoring against a weak Norway side, but were then frustrated by Paraguay’s stubborn defence.

Giroud’s creative performance against South American outfit Paraguay again raised the possibility of Deschamps playing both the 27-year-old and Benzema up top together. However, if he does, he would only have Loic Remy as cover.

As long as the 4-3-3 formation stays—which it should considering the recent upturn in results and performances—then one of Benzema and Giroud will be benched.

The biggest concern for Deschamps ahead of the World Cup is which one of those players it will be.

Christophe Ena/Associated Press

Benzema—like Ribery—has struggled to replicate his club form on the international stage and is yet to score his first goal at an international tournament. In fact, this will be the first World Cup that he has played in.

Yet recently, Benzema has started to show glimpses of his Real Madrid form at international level.

Ever since the goal that ended his 1,222-minute drought against Australia last October, the 26-year-old has been brimming with confidence. Goals against Ukraine in the second leg of the World Cup play-off followed, before he scored a superb effort against the Netherlands in a friendly in March.

Although he has not been able to feature in either of France’s warm-up matches so far, Deschamps will be counting on him to continue that form. The 45-year-old put his reputation on the line by defending Les Bleus’ No. 10 when he was at his lowest point and the risk in dropping him—destroying all of his recent progress—is considerable.

Christophe Ena/Associated Press

However, Benzema does not have long to get it right once France arrive in Brazil.

The Real Madrid man needs to hit the ground running to show his coach and his country he deserves such patience and can be the clinical finisher France so desperately need.

Giroud’s performance against Paraguay further emphasised that point—as there is no guarantee he will be more clinical than Benzema at the tournament—but the Arsenal man is not enough of a consistent goal-scoring threat to convince Deschamps to make a permanent switch.

On top of that, Ribery’s potential non-involvement at the World Cup puts an added importance on Benzema’s role within the team.

Without the Bayern Munich man, the former Olympique Lyonnais star becomes the squad’s most experienced players with 65 international appearances to his name. Yet despite those 65 caps, Benzema has never scored a goal at a major international tournament and is featuring in his first World Cup.

He, too, will be learning during this summer’s tournament and Deschamps will need him to adapt to it quickly, as Ribery’s absence would make Benzema the team’s talisman.

Already the focal point of the attack, the Real Madrid man would become the player his teammates are looking towards for inspiration in Brazil and that is a lot of pressure for a player with such limited experience.

Christophe Ena/Associated Press

While Ribery’s fitness is an obvious concern for Deschamps, at least he has Griezmann there as a backup. Without the Bayern star, he loses the most experienced member of the team and makes Benzema indispensable because of the lack of alternative leaders.

Deschamps’ real headache, though, must be Benzema and whether or not he will turn up in Brazil under so much pressure.