Soccer

Euro 2012: France's hopes rest with Karim Benzema

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PARIS (AP)

Karim Benzema may be the man France needs to finally shake off the stigma of two dreadful major tournaments and make a positive impression again at the European Championship.

France, which failed to advance from the group stage in its last two tournaments, has traditionally struggled without an inspiration leader.

It has not won a tournament match since playmaker Zinedine Zidane retired after the 2006 World Cup, and Zidane's emergence followed another lean spell after the end of Michel Platini's glorious era.

Without Zidane, France failed to win a game at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup - exiting the group stage in embarrassing fashion.

Benzema, who was not selected for the World Cup, is the player coach Laurent Blanc turned to during a hard-fought Euro 2012 qualifying campaign that went down to the wire.

''(Blanc) was always behind me when others didn't want to see me in the team. It was a strong sign,'' Benzema said. ''As soon as I spoke to Blanc, I sensed he believed in me, and when I feel that I give everything back.''

The Real Madrid striker did not disappoint, scoring decisive goals.

Zidane had a similarly close bond with Aime Jacquet when France won the 1998 World Cup. That came after years of mediocrity following Platini's retirement in 1986, having guided France to European glory two years before.

Without Platini, France failed to qualify for Euro 1988 and two consecutive World Cups before Zidane inspired France to victory at the World Cup and Euro 2000. The aging Zidane led France to the 2006 World Cup final, which France lost to Italy on penalty kicks.

It was Zidane's last match and a dry spell under Raymond Domenech ensued, culminating in farcical scenes at the last World Cup in South Africa when the team went on strike at a training session as a shocked nation watched live on television back home.

''We have to move on,'' said Benzema, who played at Euro 2008. ''There's no point thinking about this World Cup anymore.''

From the wreckage of the Domenech era, Blanc rebuilt the team to such an extent that an impressive 2-1 win at Germany in February extended Blanc's unbeaten run to 18 games.

''Our match in Bremen was encouraging. We want to get close to that level again,'' Blanc said. ''The team has a spine now.''

The team lacked one when Blanc took charge. He even described the team's weak inner core as a ''melon's pip.''

Two years later, and with Benzema maturing quickly, France is a dangerous outsider for Euro 2012.

''It's a new team and I'm more experienced,'' Benzema told France Football magazine. ''I have to talk more.''

Blanc knew Benzema had the potential, but doubted his commitment and chastised him for being overweight. Those stinging comments came when Benzema struggled to break into Madrid's team. Jose Mourinho was critical of his fitness, and his casual attitude.

Rather than crush Benzema, those setbacks inspired Benzema.

''He's taken on another dimension. Last year, everyone thought he would leave (Madrid),'' former France midfielder Emmanuel Petit told The Associated Press. ''What he's done is exceptional, when you think how much pressure is at Madrid. It's the mark of a great player.''

Petit, who scored in the 1998 World Cup final and played at Euro 2000, thinks that Benzema can flourish at Euro 2012.

''When you consider his mental strength, the way he took up a difficult challenge at Madrid, he's gone up a level,'' Petit said.

The 24-year-old Benzema reached 20 league goals for the first time with Madrid this season, and set up many for Cristiano Ronaldo. He is one of several attacking players peaking in time for Euro 2012 - where France opens against England before playing co-host Ukraine and Sweden.

Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri, Newcastle winger Hatem Ben Arfa and Paris Saint-Germain winger Jeremy Menez are all in fine form.

Benzema, Ben Arfa, Nasri and Menez are part of the what is known within French football circles as ''La Generation '87'' (The 1987 Generation). They won the under-17 European Championship together in 2004, and great things have been expected of them since.

They now have the chance to shine.

''They have to seize it,'' Blanc said. ''There's a new page to be written.''

With Benzema and Olivier Giroud both reaching 20 league goals this season, Blanc will be happy with his attacking options. But defense is a major headache - with half of his established back four missing.

Losing Barcelona left back Eric Abidal (recovering from a liver transplant) was already a major blow, but then right back Bacary Sagna broke his leg playing for Arsenal against Norwich. Sagna's place will be contested by Anthony Reveillere and Mathieu Debuchy, and Adil Rami is jostling with Laurent Koscielny for a center-half slot.

Hugo Lloris is among Europe's best goalkeepers, but the back four now looks uncertain.

The midfield also needs sorting out.

Blanc considered the injury-prone Abou Diaby as his preferred central midfielder, but Diaby has not even started a league game for Arsenal this season. Yoann Gourcuff, who cost Lyon ?22 million ($27.8 million) and used to be compared to Zidane, had a poor season.

That makes Yohan Cabaye a contender for a starting place in midfield following his fine season with Newcastle, while Ben Arfa will also be pushing for inclusion after scoring some fantastic goals this season.



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