I feel full of confidence, says Benzema

AFP, Monday 21 May 2012

Benzema blossoms to lead French regeneration

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (Photo: Reuters)

It was a mark of the progress that Karim Benzema has made over the last 18 months that his inclusion in France's preliminary squad for Euro 2012 did not raise a single eyebrow.

After failing to make an impression as France limped out in the group phase at Euro 2008, he was left out of Raymond Domenech's squad for the 2010 World Cup following a debut season at Real Madrid in which he scored just nine goals.

Now, though, he is the undisputed leader of the French attack, having spearheaded Madrid's first league title success in four years and established himself as one of the most deadly marksmen in the European game.

"I feel full of confidence and physically, I'm in top shape," he said earlier this year. "That's why I'm now trying things that I would never have dared to try before."

Benzema has been France's number nine in-waiting ever since he made his Lyon debut as a 17-year-old in a 2-0 win at home to Metz in January 2005.

Already a member of the France team that had triumphed at the Under-17 European Championship in 2004, Benzema was eased into one of the greatest club sides in French football history and found silverware tumbling into his lap.

Lyon won the league in his first four seasons, and he ended the 2007-08 season as both Ligue 1's top scorer and the UNFP (National Union of Professional Footballers) Player of the Year.

There was another season at Lyon -- 23 goals, 17 in the league -- before he decided to fly the nest and join Madrid in a transfer worth 35 million euros ($45m).

His signing was the work of returning Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who also recruited Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo as part of a second multi-million-euro 'Galactico' project aimed at toppling newly crowned European champions Barcelona.

Benzema, though, seemed unprepared.             

Already a shy individual, he arrived in Spain barely able to speak Spanish and found it impossible to dislodge Gonzalo Higuain from the starting XI.

The arrival of Jose Mourinho as coach in the summer of 2010 promised a fresh start, but the Portuguese was unimpressed by the striker's application.

"I'll have to schedule training at midday for you, because at 10 o'clock you arrive asleep and at 11 o'clock you're still sleeping," was one barb from Mourinho reported by Madrid newspaper Marca.

Laurent Blanc had replaced Domenech as France coach and immediately put his faith in Benzema, but the striker remained on the periphery at Madrid.

The breakthrough arrived midway through the 2010-11 campaign, when Higuain was sidelined by a slipped disc and Mourinho had no choice but to turn to the brooding figure with the shaven head on the substitutes' bench.

Finally assured of his place in the team, Benzema responded, developing a quick understanding with Ronaldo and finishing the season with 26 goals in all competitions.

This season was even more prolific, the 24-year-old surpassing Zinedine Zidane as the top-scoring French player in Madrid's history and plundering 32 goals to confine Higuain to a role as an impact substitute.

"Everyone at the club can see that he's one of the players who's improved the most over the course of the year," said Mourinho in February.

"He scores, as a centre-forward must, but he also brings other things to the attack and helps in the defensive phase. He's moving into the realm of the greats."

It is difficult to over-state Benzema's importance to France.

Although his return of 13 goals from 42 appearances is modest, he has found the target in prestige friendly wins over England and Brazil and is the only world-class striker at Blanc's disposal.

An injury to Benzema would seriously compromise France's chances of success, but on current form he will be gunning for the Golden Boot.

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