X

Karim Benzema Is an Asset, but France Can Get by Without Him

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2016

Karim Benzema has been in fearsome form for Real Madrid but may be prevented from attempting to reprise those efforts for France this summer
Karim Benzema has been in fearsome form for Real Madrid but may be prevented from attempting to reprise those efforts for France this summerAssociated Press

At the end of this international window, it will be decision time. There will be no more friendlies, no more trials or tests. The 24 coaches leading their nations into UEFA Euro 2016 will be alone with their thoughts and no further evidence other than club football, as they look towards composing their squads for the summer and announcing them in mid-May.

France coach Didier Deschamps arguably has a bigger job than most, with an enviable pool of talent needing to be whittled down into a group of 23. The sense is that the coach has a pretty good idea of the vast majority of faces who will be billeting at Clairefontaine this summer already, though a few open spots remain.

The impressive return of Dimitri Payet in the international in Amsterdam on Friday is an indicator of the level of competition.

The most important doubt, though, is one that is out of Deschamps' control. He has left little doubt that he would like to include Karim Benzema, as he recently told L'Equipe in an extensive interview (as reported here by Eurosport France, in French), but for now, his hands are tied.

FFF president Noel Le Graet recently commented on the decision on Benzema's eligibility, while a charge for conspiracy to blackmail international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sextape hangs over his head.

Judicial restrictions on Benzema and Valbuena coming face to face have been lifted (though this may not be relevant, with Valbuena's poor form exiling him from the squad at present). Le Graet has said the matter should be resolved either way by April 15, as reported by ESPN FC's Mark Rodden.

Benzema's involvement in the Mathieu Valbuena affair has rocked French football
Benzema's involvement in the Mathieu Valbuena affair has rocked French footballDavid Vincent/Associated Press

Clearly there are more important things for French football to think about at the moment. Security at Euro 2016 is the most paramount among those, as well as working through an emotional period for the game as Les Bleus prepare to return to Stade de France for the first time since the Paris attacks of November.

"You don't forget," said Deschamps on Monday (as per BBC Sport), as he and his players attempt to move on from the trepidation and pain that will inevitably surround the occasion.

Thoughts of the tragedy are never far away. Yohan Cabaye told BBC's Football Focus at the weekend that Euro 2016 means even more to the squad than before, as they seek to unite the nation while paying their own small but poignant tribute to those who lost their lives by succeeding in the summer.

Cabaye's words, though, draw us back to where France are and where they want to be. They want, as Deschamps said in that newspaper interview, the very best they have at their disposal this summer. They aim not to compete but to win. It's what they did at both major tournaments they previously hosted, in 1984 and 1998, so there is a certain expectation.

As Jeremy Menez became the latest name to clamour for Benzema's reintegration on Monday (via L'Equipe), claiming that his fellow "1987 Generation" member is France’s best player, it’s easy to see why the pro-Benzema campaign is growing. It’s not just a desire for reassurance and for the familiar.

Returning to Deschamps' own reasoning, there is something quite unique about Benzema. He is more than a natural finisher, more of a 9 plus 1 than a 9 1/2. He's a fox in the box who's also a visionary passer, a touch player, his natural intuition for the game reminiscent of that of his idol, the Brazilian Ronaldo. No other centre-forward can quite do what Benzema does.

If that wasn't enough, he's also red hot. The controversy of recent months has not appeared to weigh him down. Despite a couple of injury breaks, Benzema is in the form of his life for Real Madrid this season, steaming along at a Cristiano-like goal per game. He has 20 goals in 20 La Liga starts and another four in four Champions League matches.

Fellow Madrid residents Benzema and Antoine Griezmann have shown hints of a real rapport in the blue of France
Fellow Madrid residents Benzema and Antoine Griezmann have shown hints of a real rapport in the blue of FranceLionel Cironneau/Associated Press

He gave a glimpse of just how good he can be for France in his last international appearance, at home to Armenia in October, when he scored twice and laid on the opener for Antoine Griezmann. It was easy to see on that night at Nice's Allianz Riviera exactly why the Atletico Madrid man enjoys playing in tandem with his neighbour from the Spanish capital so much.

The younger Griezmann has been through his own exile from the France setup, banished in 2013 along with Yann M'Vila, Mbaye Niang and Wissam Ben Yedder for an unauthorised sortie from Under-21 duty to a Paris nightclub (as told by BBC Sport, here). He has not wasted a second since he made his comeback.

One wonders whether Benzema will be able to do the same, given the chance. Players on enforced absences—be it via injury or suspension—can develop a semi-mythical status while they're away. This is happening with Benzema to a certain extent.

The 28-year-old has had his moments for France but has never reproduced his club form for Les Bleus on a regular basis. Nine years into his international career, he has scored 27 times in 81 appearances. As Deschamps says, Benzema is not all about the goals, but this slightly underwhelming return is fairly indicative of his France career. Nearly but not quite.

2014's World Cup in Brazil was a case in point. In a country he has long held an affinity with, from his worship of Ronaldo through being mentored by Juninho as a youngster at Lyon to spending a winter break enjoying the hospitality of former team-mate Fred, his tournament fizzed with promise.

Brazilian midfielder Juninho helped Benzema settle in Lyon's first team as a teenager
Brazilian midfielder Juninho helped Benzema settle in Lyon's first team as a teenagerCLAUDE PARIS/Associated Press

Having overcome a goal drought in qualifying (he was goalless for France from mid-2012 to October 2013), Benzema was sublime against Honduras and Switzerland in the group stage, suggesting he could mould France's fate. By the passive quarter-final exit to Germany, he was subdued and tentative. Benzema is capable of the extraordinary but never looked like producing it when his team needed it the most.

Olivier Giroud, the man who stands to benefit most from Benzema's absence, is no like-for-like replacement. The Arsenal man doesn't have so much of a pinch of the stardust that characterises Benzema. He is, however, made of strong stuff, scoring four in France's last four games in a response to growing criticism last year.

Deschamps has talked on a number of occasions about finding balance within the squad—not necessarily picking the 23 best players but picking the 23 players who will work best together. He still hopes Benzema will be one of them.

Yet the intrinsic quality of Benzema and the reality of his performances at international level are often two completely different things. He would be missed at Euro 2016, but France will probably be just fine without him.

🚨 SPORTS NEWS ➡️ YOUR INBOX

The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.