With Franck Ribery missing for France in Brazil, Karim Benzema is now the most experienced member of Didier Deschamps’ 23-man squad. The Real Madrid man does not enjoy the same reputation that he has at club level on the international stage, and it is the 26-year-old’s first FIFA World Cup.
Considering how disappointing Benzema has been in both of the European Championships he has played in so far—2008 and 2012—the former Olympique Lyonnais man has a point to prove to himself and his country in South America.
Starting against Honduras in Porto Alegre on Sunday, Benzema is under immense pressure to perform for Les Bleus. Despite being the most experienced member of the group, he has regularly failed to replicate his impressive club form for the French national team, and he is running out of opportunities to do so.
Yet to even score a single goal at a major international tournament, Benzema simply has to deliver this summer.
Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud is not exactly a consistent finisher, with Mathieu Valbuena more of a provider and Antoine Griezmann still only just emerging at this level. There is Queens Park Rangers’ Loic Remy too, but he is also not the most efficient in front of goal.
Benzema is the most clinical player in this squad at club level and is expected to provide the bulk of France’s World Cup goals. Considering that it is less than one year since the Real Madrid star was struggling through a 1,222-minute goal drought, this is not necessarily a good thing.
Even though Benzema appears to have rediscovered his confidence since breaking that duck against Australia last October with goals against Ukraine, the Netherlands and a double against Jamaica in consecutive games, there is a nagging suspicion that he will once again go missing when it matters most.
Ribery’s absence not only makes Benzema the most seasoned player in terms of international appearances, but it now also makes the France No. 10 the talisman of this team and the player that all of his teammates will be looking to for inspiration and leadership in Brazil.
Will that get to him?
Although he is an important player at club level for Real Madrid, this is not a role that comes naturally to Benzema, and a slow start would heap even more pressure on him. However, the recent change in formation exhibited by Deschamps as France thumped Jamaica 8-0 in their final warm-up fixture could actually help the mercurial talent.
In that final friendly at Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, Deschamps loosely deployed Benzema in Ribery’s wide left position, and it worked well. Admittedly, it was against a very poor Jamaican side, but the system granted him the sort of freedom that he spends so much time looking for when played as the focal point of Les Bleus’ attack.
Without feeling the need to drop back—leaving the French short up top—Benzema could be far more effective in this role, combining with Valbuena to create chances and also sharing the burden of finishing them with Giroud.
Considering that the France No. 9 is also not the most clinical of strikers, this could be how Deschamps gets the best out of Benzema.
However, if the 45-year-old does decided to trust the Real Madrid man with being the central threat in a three-man attacking unit, the pressure really will be on for Benzema to hit the ground running at Estadio Beira-Rio.
Since the likes of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, France have lacked a truly prolific goalscorer, and even then the French could not totally rely on both of those players regularly at international tournaments.
While Henry scored three goals at both Euro 2000 and the 2006 World Cup—managing to score at five major international tournaments—Trezeguet never scored more than the two goals he managed at Euro 2000 and only netted in three separate outings.
In terms of pure ability, Benzema is arguably as talented as both—if not potentially better—but he is in danger of failing to live up to either player’s achievements for their country. Admittedly, he might not be able to equal Henry in scoring in five different major international tournaments because of time constraints, but he could still surpass him in terms of the total number of goals scored.
But in that case, he needs to start delivering now.
As good as Trezeguet was for France, Benzema should surpass his record. However, Trezeguet managed to score important goals for Les Bleus—not least the golden goal that won the Euro 2000 final 2-1 against Italy—so Benzema has plenty to live up to there as well.
Trezeguet managed an impressive 34 goals in 71 senior appearances for France—almost one in every two games—while Benzema only has 21 from 66 matches at present. Henry netted 51 times for Les Tricolores in 123 appearances, so bettering both players' total amounts is still possible at just 26 years old.
However, simply scoring goals is not enough for the Real Madrid No. 9. He needs to score goals in the important games, not just friendlies and World Cup or European Championship qualifiers.
Although it might ultimately prove fruitless comparing Benzema with Henry and Trezeguet as they are all vastly different types of player, the fact remains that the former must start emulating the goal scoring feats of the latter pair in big tournaments if he is to avoid being further criticised for his international performances and lack of contribution.
Benzema is an immense talent and one of the greatest France has produced in recent history, but there is a chance that he will ultimately have little to show for his international exploits unless he starts to perform well at major international events.
Because of that, Benzema is the France player under the most pressure at the World Cup and someone who potentially has a lot to lose if he underperforms.