Karim Benzema’s return gives France more questions than answers

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4-min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
<span>Photograph: Tibor Illyes/AP</span>
Photograph: Tibor Illyes/AP

It needs more, we know, than the names on the teamsheet. Yet as France toiled against a stubborn, ultra-motivated Hungary who were as obstructive as their ebullient public demanded, it was difficult not to think that la mayonnaise ne prend pas – that it just wasn’t coming together. Certainly in the front part of the field, that was the case.

Some will want to pin that, inevitably, on the return of Karim Benzema to the squad amid much fanfare. Yet while there were mutterings about the sex tape scandal that had precipitated his five-and-a half-year absence from the France squad (he denies wrongdoing) and what such a strong character’s return might mean to dressing-room equilibrium, the technical aspect has remained largely free of analysis.

Related: Antoine Griezmann rescues France but cannot quieten the Hungary delirium

Didier Deschamps is nothing if not a pragmatist, and has had fallouts with big players in the past before getting past them – although this was more excommunication than blazing row. In the end what made up the coach’s mind was what always makes up his mind: the fettle of the team. Having seen Les Bleus draw blanks against Portugal and Finland this season and struggle to put away Ukraine and Kazakhstan in the World Cup qualifiers (dropping two points in the Stade de France in the former), the possibility of a Benzema return grew in Deschamps’ mind.

What had also grown in the intervening period was Benzema himself: figuratively, as he took centre stage at Real Madrid post-Cristiano Ronaldo, and literally, as he muscled up and started to do all of those things a classic No 9 could, while retaining that vision that made him unique. The idea was simple. Benzema now had the capabilities that made Olivier Giroud such a useful conduit but at the end of it, Kylian Mbappé would be running on to a better return ball.

Give or take Giroud, it was a popular choice with the players. Corentin Tolisso – a 13-year-old academy scholar at Lyon when Benzema’s 31 goals fired the club to a league and cup double in 2008 – and Presnel Kimpembe talked of playing with Benzema being the fulfilment of “a childhood dream”. A player who won the Champions League three times since he was cut off by France is a legend to their generation.

France&#x002019;s Olivier Giroud and Rapha&#xeb;l Varane are surrounded by Hungary defenders
France’s Olivier Giroud (second left), who replaced Benzema, and Raphaël Varane are surrounded by Hungary defenders. Photograph: László Balogh/Reuters

Absence made the heart grow fonder for many fans too. So much so that it was easy to overlook the fact that his skill set had been quite difficult to fit into a winning team before. Benzema was never all about the goals but his international record of 27 goals in 82 appearances was nothing to write home about. The assumption that his exclusion was political was to some extent just that. The off-pitch context might just have made it easier for the coach to make a decision that he would have liked to take on a sporting level.

There were hints in the first half here that it could all come together in glorious Technicolor, particularly just past the half-hour when a masterful combination between Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann left Benzema with a gaping goal in front of him – but he sliced wide.

Related: Spain v Poland: Euro 2020 – live!

Timing is exactly the issue. If bringing back Benzema was the plan, why not give him and the players notice to work on it? Bringing in a new key player was always going to require recalibration. For France, who have made very few changes to the équipe type of 2018 – Kimpembe for Samuel Umtiti, Adrien Rabiot for Blaise Matuidi and now Benzema for Giroud – this was even more the case.

Stability has always been a very sought-after commodity around the France team.

Later, Ousmane Dembélé’s shot against the outside of Peter Gulacsi’s post just after his introduction underlined how tentative everything before had been. Griezmann’s equaliser – what felt like his first time in the penalty area in this tournament – prompted a reflection back to 2016, and how good this team can look when built around him. Even the best need to rehearse, and it should have happened before now.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting