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May 21, 2014

Benzema's last chance for France

Karim Benzema has shone for France in recent months, but if he fails to deliver in Brazil, it could be the end of his time with Les Bleus.
Karim Benzema has shone for France in recent months, but if he fails to deliver in Brazil, it could be the end of his time with Les Bleus.

Come July 13, it's possible that Karim Benzema could be both a European and world champion. Admittedly, it's a long shot that Les Bleus will go all the way in Brazil, but it is more than possible that the 26-year-old -- along with international teammate Raphael Varane -- is on the winning side in the Champions League final come Saturday night in Lisbon when Real Madrid take on their bitter rivals Atletico in Lisbon.

No matter what happens in Portugal this weekend, though, Benzema has to deliver for Didier Deschamps in South America this summer. After pair of false starts with the French national team in the 2008 and 2012 European Championships, the former Olympique Lyonnais man is still chasing his first goal at a major international tournament. In fact, it will be his first appearance at a FIFA World Cup, having missed out in 2010 after a difficult first season in Spain.

Yet Benzema travels to Brazil as France's second-most-capped player, ranking behind only Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery, who has more World Cup appearances to his name (10) than the rest of the entire squad put together. For a player with the reputation that Benzema enjoys, you would expect that he is as important for his country as he is for his club. However, this has often not been the case with Les Tricolores' No. 9 thus far.

At Euro 2008 and 2012, as well as the 2010 edition of the World Cup, Ribery was the man France had looked to as their talisman, and each time he let them down. Now, with the 31-year-old in declining form since the start of 2014, Deschamps and Les Bleus will have to put their faith in the goalless Benzema to lead them to glory instead.

Should he fail to perform in Brazil, then it could be curtains for his international career.

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Prior to his goal in the 50th minute of a 6-0 thrashing of Australia back in October, Benzema had failed to find the net in 1,224 minutes of international football. The relief on his face after scoring that night at the Parc des Princes was clear for all to see. Following that strike, his Real Madrid form improved and his confidence at international level was suddenly sky high.

Benzema scored France's second goal in a 3-0 second-leg win over Ukraine at Stade de France to seal an improbable 3-2 aggregate win -- the first time in history that any country has ever overcome a two-goal first leg deficit -- and then found the net again with a well-taken effort in a friendly against the Netherlands in March.

Now buoyed by Benzema's reinvigorated form, Deschamps rightly feels vindicated for the confidence that he showed in the mercurial striker during the darkest of moments of that drought. His return to form has also -- at least temporarily -- ended calls for the Real Madrid man to be paired with Arsenal's Olivier Giroud up top.

It is imperative that Benzema now repays Deschamps' faith by delivering goals on the biggest stage.

The World Cup is a major opportunity to prove beyond all doubt that he deserves his reputation as a player of the highest quality. Ribery's waning form and that fact that he failed to truly step up in either game against Ukraine when Les Bleus needed him most, makes it more important than ever for the real Benzema to show himself. Should he fail to do so, Deschamps -- assuming that France's Brazilian sojourn is not a complete disaster and he remains in charge -- will be under immense pressure to dispense with his star man's services once and for all ahead of Euro 2016.

There is only so long that you can keep putting yourself in the firing line for your players, and Benzema ended his excruciating wait for an international goal just as Deschamps was reaching that point last year. The 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship-winning captain is unlikely to take the same flak again if Benzema under-performs once more this summer.

Admittedly, the current dearth of French attacking talent might initially work in the Real Madrid man's favour if he does fail to live up to expectations in Brazil, but Deschamps surely will no longer count on him and could look to build the team around somebody else.

With the likes of Sevilla's Kevin Gameiro finding form again after a period of stagnation in the French capital with Paris Saint-Germain, the pressure is on Benzema and not just from his direct competition in Giroud. Lyon starlet Alexandre Lacazette has also shown that he is not far away from figuring in Deschamps' plans, while an abundance of versatile attacking talents are now starting to mature. All could eventually enable the France tactician to discard Benzema if he is unable to embrace the role that Deschamps has earmarked him for.

The current 4-3-3 formation should -- in theory -- get the best out of both Ribery and Benzema. But with the former revealing that this will be his last World Cup, he is now only going to remain a key player for a limited amount of time. At 26, if Benzema can start to realise his true potential with Les Bleus, then he could cement his status as an integral member of the squad at least the next three major international tournaments.

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