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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Karim Benzema’s surprise Euro 2020 recall will help keep France fresh

Karim Benzema France Euro lineup
Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema of France. Sebastien Nogier/EPA.

France already boasted the strongest squad in international soccer. In fact, the country’s current pool of players might be the deepest ever seen in the international game. And yet the unexpected return of one player, picked by Didier Deschamps for Euro 2020, might just take Les Blues to another level this summer.

After a six-year absence, Karim Benzema is back in the France squad having been named in Deschamps’ 26-man Euro 2020 squad. The striker missed Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, which France won, but now has the chance to make up for lost time. “I needed it, he needed it,” Deschamps explained.

For all France’s obvious talent, they have lacked a true number nine to lead the line in recent years. Deschamps started the 2018 World Cup with Antoine Griezmann up front, but soon drafted in Olivier Giroud to act as an attacking apex. This is a role the Chelsea forward has performed admirably for his country, but Benzema is a significant upgrade.

Benzema has enjoyed the season of his life for Real Madrid, scoring 29 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions. Not only this, the 33-year-old has emerged as a leader in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo age at the Santiago Bernabeu, filling the void that was left by the Portuguese forward three years ago.

Perhaps only Harry Kane can claim to be as complete a centre forward as Benzema is right now. He isn’t just Real Madrid’s cutting edge, but their driving force too. When Zinedine Zidane’s side need something more, it’s Benzema who takes it upon himself to pick up the ball and make the difference.

Stopping France this summer will take some doing. Deschamps will now surely partner Benzema with Griezmann as a fluid front two with Kylian Mbappe granted something of a free role. As a front three, only the fabled Barcelona ‘MSN’ of a few years ago will come close to matching France’s for individual quality.

Then there’s the likes of Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembele as options to provide movement and pace around them. Consider that this attacking line will be supported by a midfield platform of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and potentially Tanguy Ndombele. Les Blues warrant their place as tournament favourites.

Benzema, however, gives France some attacking purpose. He won’t diminish their fluidity as a side. In fact, the 33-year-old will facilitate that fluidity, such is his comfortability in dropping deep to create space in behind. Benzema will be the perfect foil for Griezmann and Mbappe as France target yet more major tournament glory.

If there is a risk to Benzema’s return it is in the way it could disrupt a very close-knit group of players. There is nothing Deschamps values more than unity. It’s why Aymeric Laporte has been forced to switch his international allegiance to Spain having been overlooked by France for years – the Manchester City defender just wasn’t in Deschamps’ core group. Once you’re out, you’re out.

This is why Benzema’s call-up was so surprising. While there’s no doubt the Real Madrid forward is among France’s best players at this moment, Deschamps has brought a strong character into his group. In their pre-Euro training, his re-introduction has appeared to be far from an issue—if anything, the players are clearly excited for him to be back. But Deschamps has done everything possible to maintain a steady environment in his dressing room. Benzema’s call-up was always going to bring an element of uncertainty in this regard.

The flip side is that Benzema’s re-introduction could freshen things up on and off the field for Les Blues. Club managers often speak about the need for winning teams to evolve to stay at the top and the same principle applies to the international game. Obviously international managers can’t turn to the transfer market to achieve evolution, so they must find ways to do that within their national talent pools.

Germany’s recent struggles serves as a warning to France. The 2014 World Cup winners refused to evolve, sticking with the same manager and the same players, until it was too late. Germany now face their biggest rebuild since the early 2000s, with Low set to stand aside as national team boss after this summer’s Euros.

He might be into his 30s, but Benzema, who is only getting better with age, can rejuvenate France and keep them moving forward. Deschamps might have taken an out-of-character risk by calling the forward into his Euro 2020 squad, but with that risk could come the ultimate reward: European glory.

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