Benzema needs to go the extra mile to achieve greatness

The Rio Report

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The first World Cup for Karim Benzema, the most capped player in the French squad, saw his best and worst sides on display - but could his performances be a springboard for him to lead his nation to future success?

Benzema’s natural talent and extraordinary ability has often been limited by an apparent lack of desire. When on form, he is powerful and quick, an accurate finisher and a predator who spends much of his time inside the box.

France has won every one of the games in which he has scored. But he is also seen as a bad boy, not in the controversial style of Luis Suarez or Mario Balotelli, but in the way his surly nature causes him to blow hot and cold on a whim.

There are times when he is virtually invisible and that has led to tough criticism, none more so than from his old Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho, who went so far as to suggest Benzema was virtually useless when he likened his selection to “going hunting with a cat.”

Throughout his career, his mental attitude has been highly responsive to things happening around him – and several key moments have shaped him into what he is today.

Stepping up as leader at Lyon

After three years and just 49 appearances in Lyon’s first team, he was forced to take a lead role at the young age of 19 when Flourant Malouda and Sylvain Wiltord left.

He rose to the task and scored 31 goals in 51 games – a hit rate of 60 percent compared to 26 in previous seasons – and much of it was down to the relationship he formed with new manager Alain Perrin.

Settling-in issues at Real

He left Lyon for Real Madrid in 2009 seeking “a bigger challenge” and got exactly that, arriving at the same time as Ronaldo and Kaka.

Despite five goals in pre-season he was dropped in favour of Gonzalo Higuaín and the Spanish press warned he may be the ‘new Anelka’.

In truth, he was simply struggling to fit in. Unable to understand the dressing room banter, he admitted becoming paranoid his team-mates were laughing at him.

After four months, he took up Spanish lessons and as his confidence grew his game improved.

Mourinho mind games

Jose Mourinho criticised Benzema at Real, labelling him “listless” in the press, pleading for a replacement and reported lambasting him in front of his team-mates, saying: "If it was just for you I’d make training at midday because you arrive at 10 o'clock half asleep..."

If that was not enough, when Adebayor arrived on loan midway through that season it could have buried Benzema but instead it gave him renewed determination.

After just one goal in the 19 games to December, he scored 12 between January and March and said: “I’ve found myself again. I put in a lot of hard work in training and that’s paying off.”

Fired up by fans

Benzema was a success in French juniors but in seniors he was a disappointment, patchy at best in the 2008 and 2012 Euros and not even selected for World Cup 2010.

When current boss Didier Deschamps took over, Benzema was at the start of what would be a 1,222-minute barren spell – but rather than give up, the pair spent two long years working on his psychology.

Deschamps claimed “when he has that inner strength, that rage, it makes him stronger” and that rage came last October when sections of the crowd mocked him in a friendly with Australia. He broke his barren spell then scored five in seven games on the run to Brazil.

Zidane backing

Perhaps the biggest stabiliser in Benzema’s career, however, is World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane, a long-time advisor to Real president Florentino Perez and the club’s assistant coach last year.

When Benzema struggles, Zidane has always helped him achieve more, and last year, when Higuain left, he backed Benzema to lead if given the continuity and certainty on which he thrives. He did just that.

So came Brazil – and with Franck Ribery out injured, it was Benzema’s chance to shine. On the pitch he became the man the team would look to for inspiration and leadership - something that inspired him at Lyon - and off it the birth of his first child had noticeably made him more responsible.

Yet there was still that concern he could go missing when it mattered most. In the opening matches, he was a superstar, scoring three and setting up two. But in the knockout stages he looked lost and France succumbed to a quality German side in the quarterfinal.

At that time, Benzema had achieved more attempts on target than any other player in the tournament – 25 in total with 21 from in the box. He only suffered when the opposition focused on locking him out.

The tournament showed France can dream of a bright future and Benzema can lead it - but only if he takes another step forward. “He's the kind of player that doesn't talk much, but he has both feet on the ground,” said Zidane.

“He must pass this level to become a leader. I hope he rises to the challenge next season. I want Karim to speak to the group rather than have others do it for him."

If he can, then he could reach that next level and start to emulate the man who has helped take him there...

Will Gray

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