FRANCE headed into the defence of their World Cup title with an attack that seemed to cover for its midfield losses.
But the holders continue to be decimated by injuries. Star striker Karim Benzema became the latest to fall just three days before they open their Group ‘D’ campaign in Qatar against Australia.
The 34-year-old Real Madrid striker had been training separately from the rest of the squad and nursing a knee and thigh injury and France had been hoping that Benzema would recover.
Instead, on returning to the team practice, he suffered an injury on his left thigh. Scans revealed a tear that ruled Benzema out of potentially his last World Cup.
After a remarkable season with Real, Benzema becomes the first reigning Ballon D’Or winner to not feature at the World Cup since Dane Allan Simonsen missed it in 1978.
Having been out of the reckoning for France for almost six years for a sex-tape scandal before being reintegrated into the side for the European Championships last year, Benzema became an integral part of Les Bleus as they claimed the Nations League.
His sizzling form in guiding Real to the Champions League, single-handedly taking them out of losing situations, had made his case to be included for France. He made Real forget about Cristiano Ronaldo with his goals, adding another dimension to his game. His leadership was unquestionable.
With France shorn of their midfield generals Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante for the World Cup due to injury, Benzema was going to have the added responsibility of knitting together the midfield and the attack. He’s done that repeatedly for Real.
“It’s a shame for the tournament that the world’s best footballer has been ruled out,” Yussuf Poulsen of Denmark, France’s Group ‘D’ rivals, told reporters at their training base on Sunday. “But France still won the World Cup without Benzema [four years ago in Russia] and they still have a very strong team.”
Benzema’s addition to France’s glut of injuries means Kylian Mbappe will now become key to France’s chances of becoming the first repeat champions of the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.
Hours before Benzema was ruled out, Arsenal’s legendary French manager Arsene Wenger suggested Mbappe would be crucial to France’s chances.
“Teams that go to the end must have a certain control,” Wenger, FIFA’s chief of Global Football Development, told reporters at a news conference on Saturday. “But with Mbappe, France have the most dangerous team in transition.”
All that means, France coach Didier Deschamps is likely to go with the attacking trident that won him the World Cup in Russia with Olivier Giroud playing up front supported by Antoine Griezmann and Mbappe.
The trio have racked up the goals for France. Giroud has 49, just two shy of Thierry Henry’s record for France, while Griezmann has 42 and Mbappe 28.
But with a young midfield behind them, one of them might have to drop back to assist. Griezmann was at his brilliant best in Russia while playing in the hole. But it’s Mbappe who seems will have to go deeper to start the attack.
“It’s helpful for us [that Benzema isn’t there],” Australia full-back Nate Atkinson told reporters on Sunday ahead of their match with France on Nov 22. “But it’s not good seeing any player going down with injury.”
Atkinson, however, will now have to face the threat of Mbappe, a player who he said is in his “Ultimate Team at the FIFA 2022 video game”.
“They are world-class players and are at the top of their games in Europe. That’s obviously what we aspire to.”
If Mbappe, whose blinding speed and guile bamboozled defences in Russia as a teenager, can lead France to the title in Qatar, it would increase his stature manifold.
“It [Losing Benzema] is a blow,” France midfielder and Benzema’s Real team-mate Eduardo Camavinga told reporters at a news conference on Sunday. “…but we have lots of good players and we’ll fight for all of those who haven’t had the chance to come.”
Mbappe is one of the best they have. In last season’s Champions League, Benzema stole the spotlight from Mbappe and his PSG team-mates Lionel Messi and Neymar in guiding Real through to the quarter-finals in stunning fashion. But with Benzema out, the glare is firmly on Mbappe and his time to once again make the headlines.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2022