Benzema key in qualifying and beyond

It was June 23, 2021, when Karim Benzema announced his return to Les Bleus to the rest of the wide world. Yes, he was in Didier Deschamps’ 26-man squad for Euro 2020 and he did play in a few games before his grand return to the French side. Yet his two goals in a crucial group stage match against Portugal cemented his return to the pinnacle of international football after nearly six years of exile. Benzema was back.

And he was a great help for a French team that could arguably be called the best in the world. He scored six goals in his ten games after the Euros. Even though France hit a slump in the Nations League, he was a rare beam of brilliance in a sea of gloom. He even scored six goals in eleven Real Madrid games. He was set to lead the French front line to another victory in Qatar. Benzema would be the one to break the World Cup curse, and prove that he hadn’t missed a beat with his new-look French team.

So that’s why his thigh injury a day before the World Cup started was so heartbreaking. Not only did the reigning Ballon d’Or winner miss out on his big return to the international stage, but he joined players such as Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku, Paul Pogba, and N’Golo Kante watching the World Cup at home. It seemed like the World Cup winner’s curse would strike again.

Injury? No problem

France had a lot of eyes on them going into the World Cup. Projected to bounce out early due to their poor form and injury troubles, Les Bleus looked like they would have a hard time at Qatar when Craig Goodwin scored an early goal in their opener.

But to most people’s surprise, France struck back. First came an Adrien Rabiot header to level the game. Olivier Giroud’s incredible trickery inside the box helped France score another goal to take the lead. Kylian Mbappé headed in France’s third goal in the second half, and Giroud wrapped the game up with yet another header to end the game 4-1.

France followed up a dominant display against Australia with a knockout round-clinching win against Denmark. Mbappé took the lead early with a magnificent goal in the 61st minute, but Denmark struck back with a strong header past Hugo Lloris. Denmark, who always seemed to be the kryptonite to France’s superhuman attack, looked like they found a solution to Mbappé’s scoring.

That was until the 86th minute, where Mbappé sent an Antoine Griezmann cross past Kasper Schemichel and into the net.

After Tunisia beat France’s reserve squad in their final group stage game, France headed into a match with Poland looking surprisingly dangerous. They showed it late in the first half when Olivier Giroud sent a first-time shot past Wojciech Szczesny to the back of the net, making him France’s top goalscorer. Mbappe’s sent his fourth goal of the season, placing his calculated finish past a myriad of defenders and Szczesny to double France’s lead.

He scored a wonder of a goal in the 90th minute, curving a big shot from a tough angle into the top corner of the net, giving Mbappé his fifth goal of the World Cup and France’s third of the game. Although Robert Lewandowski’s penalty in stoppage time prevented a clean sheet, France’s strong performance against Poland will put Les Bleus on the right track for a game against England

How Deschamps replaced Benzema

Didier Deschamps’ tactical choices this World Cup has been largely consistent; aside from a bizarre loss to Tunisia. The French side usually lines up in a shape like a 4-2-3-1.

Hugo Lloris starts in goal, as he has consistently since 2008. Mike Maignan’s injury means that France could be in trouble should he get hurt. Lloris has failed to keep a clean sheet at Qatar, but Deschamps’ faith in his starting keeper is unwavering.

Raphaël Varane and Dayot Upamecano are the two starting center-backs. Both have been in good form for their respective clubs. To their left is Upamecano’s Theo Hernández. He replaced Lucas Hernández after he sustained a serious injury against Australia just 13 minutes into the game.

One of the main talking points for France is Benjamin Pavard’s benching. Despite having a good performance against Australia, the Bayern right-back did not make the starting eleven for their games against Denmark nor Poland.

Deschamps believes that Pavard has shown a lack of self-criticism, especially given he has protected him since his arrival in the France team and that the two have been close in the past.

GetFootballNewsFrance’s Raphaël Jucobin

Barcelona’s Jules Koundé replaced him despite usually playing as a center-back, but he has played superbly for France. It will be an ongoing struggle for Pavard to win his starting spot back.

Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot get the two starting midfield spots, amid some controversy. Some said that Eduardo Camavinga could take a starting spot, or that Matteo Guendouzi could emerge as a breakout candidate for Les Bleus. Yet it looks like Deschamps made the right choice. The two number sixes have impressed at Qatar, adding an extra layer of safety to the France goal.

Giroud, who is tearing up Serie A with Milan, takes the striker role, as he usually does with his club side. Although he is 36, he has not played like it at Qatar. He’s proven Deschamps right in that he is still a lethal, elite striker that you should give any space to.

Deschamps usually backs Giroud up with Ousmane Dembele and Mbappe on the wings, and Antoine Griezmann as a center-forward. Mbappe has scored 26 total goals in 29 games this season, while Dembele has scored five goals and nine assists in 25 games. It’s not surprising that two has wreaked havoc on the wings. Despite struggling sometimes with a sluggish Atleti side, Griezmann gets the crucial attacking midfielder position.

Wing play wins matches for France

One of France’s greatest qualities is the lethality on the wings. With Mbappé, Dembele, Hernandez, and Koundé on the wings, France has all the firepower they need to score lots and lots of goals.

It’s why Giroud is relatively uninvolved in the French offense. Despite scoring three goals in Qatar, he has not touched the ball over 20 times in any of his matches. His presence in the box helps create space while making use of his consistent finishing.

It’s a drastic change from times when Benzema led France into battle. He is very involved in the offense at both club and country level. With Carlo Ancelotti, he’s the center-forward in a three-man pairing with Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo. But with Deschamps, Benzema has either played alongside Mbappé or by himself.

Benzema likes to link up with the midfield and combine with wingers for team-based goals, but Giroud is more of a poacher who can finish everything in the box.

You could argue that Giroud’s success shows that France might be better off without Benzema. Giroud has mainly stayed in the box, unlike Benzema, giving France more channels to attack from. France does not get that extra mobility on the ground that Benzema gives with his superior passing skills. But, with an England matchup on the way, Giroud’s goalscoring and dangerousness inside the 18 will give them an added boost.

Photo credit: IMAGO / Icon Sportswire

Guide to World Cup 2022

Here are some resources to help you get the most out of the biggest event in soccer!
TV Schedule: All the info on where and when to watch every game
The Groups: We breakdown each group and all the teams
The Kits: Check out what every team will be wearing on the field this fall
Predictor: Play out every scenario with our World Cup Predictor
World Cup Bracket: Map out the entire tournament, from the groups to the final