Karim Benzema's Vanishing Act Cost France When It Mattered Most

Andrew GibneyFeatured ColumnistJuly 5, 2014

France's Karim Benzema stands on the pitch after Germany defeated France 1-0 to advance to the semifinals during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, July 4, 2014.  Benzema missed a near goal in the closing minutes to equalize the match. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

The stage was all set for Karim Benzema. Coming off the joy of lifting the Champions League trophy with Real Madrid, the injury to Franck Ribery meant that in an attacking sense, the team was his.

With the increased responsibility on his shoulders, it was going to be make or break for his international career.

If we were to give Benzema a grade for his performances in Brazil, you would have to say he started with an A—two goals and inches away from a hat-trick against Honduras.

However, he finished with nothing more than a C minus—he looked disinterested against Nigeria and failed to step up and produce a performance when his country needed him against Germany.

When he went through his agonising dry spell, going 1,224 minutes without an international goal, Didier Deschamps stuck by his striker, continually starting him when the public calls were there to bench him for the in-form Montpellier, now Arsenal striker, Olivier Giroud.

Relief was the over-riding emotion when he scored against Australia and ended his drought, but the start of his resurgence really began when he scored against Ukraine in France's 3-0 win that booked their place at the World Cup.

Martin Meissner/Associated Press

When he missed the first two warm-up games before the World Cup, there were doubts on whether he would be able to win a starting place, but they were vanquished against Jamaica.

Benzema played mostly on the left side of the attack, with Giroud spearheading the front line, but the Real Madrid man was given free rein to drift inside, find the space and create a devastating partnership with Giroud and Mathieu Valbuena.

France won that game 8-0, Benzema got a hat-trick and it was the perfect send-off for Les Bleus as they flew from Lille to Rio in preparation for the tournament.

Deschamps made a huge call against Honduras, dropping Giroud and bringing in the young and exciting Antoine Griezmann. Benzema played centrally and scored twice. His performance was very impressive, perhaps the most exciting shift he had ever put in for France while playing in the central position.

Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press

Back at Euro 2012, Benzema had a very bad tournament, and it looks very clear that he struggled with the responsibilities of being the lone striker.

Opponents doubling up on Franck Ribery and a slew of different players playing on the right left Benzema to wander the front line looking for opportunities to get on the ball.

France lacked a presence in the box, and after losing the last group game to Sweden, they limped out against Spain. Laurent Blanc stepped aside and Deschamps began the rebuilding process.

The formation may have been the same, but with Griezmann and Valbuena flanking the 27-year-old forward, the movement was better and Benzema had support.

Then against Switzerland, Deschamps reverted to the attack that destroyed Jamaica, Benzema playing one of the free roles, linking up with Giroud to perfection. France won 5-2, all three of the attackers scored and Benzema set up the other two.

At that stage, it sounded ridiculous to say that Benzema is incapable of playing that role. To say he is playing on the left is misleading. That is where the pre-game graphic displays his name, but in Deschamps system, he is given the freedom of the attack.

Before the Nigeria game, there was too much made of the fact that Benzema was starting to the left of Giroud. It had worked against Switzerland; nothing had changed to say it wouldn't work against the African side.

The narrative was given legs when Benzema came out looking disinterested and lifeless. Giroud worked hard for 60 minutes, and without that work rate, there would not have been space for Griezmann to exploit when he came on in the Arsenal striker's place.

Benzema came to life and had a few moments with the Real Sociedad forward that sparked France to victory.

Against Germany, Benzema once again got the nod as the central striker, but this time he was ineffectual. He made a few decent runs, had one or two half chances, but there wasn't the same level of energy that France fed off against Honduras, but now there wasn't an excuse that he was playing out of position.

Blame has to fall at Benzema's door. He was motivated for the games against Honduras and Switzerland and it didn't matter where he had to play, he wanted the ball and made things happen.

For the two knockout games, he looked nothing like the same player who sparkled and shone during the group stage.

No French player has scored more than three goals at a World Cup since Just Fontaine way back in 1958. After two games in Brazil, Benzema had three goals and the French public would have gambled their homes on the former Lyon striker grabbing a fourth in the three games that followed.

Without skirting round the issues, Benzema failed. It wasn't about Deschamps' tactical decisions and it wasn't about where he was positioned on the pitch. He failed to rise to the occasion and, for the lack of a better word, he bottled it.

When he is in the mood to play and be one of the best strikers in the world, you just put him on the pitch and let him fly. However, when he is in a sulk, something that seems only to happen for Les Bleus, he becomes a passenger.

Francois Xavier Marit/Associated Press

Deschamps has a huge decision to make. Benzema will be 29 years old when France host Euro 2016. There are no real big talents coming through at the moment who would be able to lead the line.

Giroud has shown he is a team player and could become Deschamps' first option to lead the attack, but if Benzema is still scoring bagfuls of goals at club level, it is hard not to pick him for the national team.

The main problem is that you then give him another chance to disappear when it matters most. This could be the final straw for Deschamps. As soon as the games got a little tough, France's best striker vanished—that could be unforgiveable in French eyes.