France's Benzema must finally shine on big stage
PARIS (AP) This is Karim Benzema's chance to finally shine on the world stage - and it can't come a moment too soon for France.
With winger Franck Ribery's form fading somewhat in recent weeks, Benzema could become France's best attacking player at the World Cup.
But his play at the international level remains erratic and the question is whether he can turn it on after flopping at the European Championship two years ago and also failing to score at Euro 2008. He was left out by former France coach Raymond Domenech for the 2010 World Cup.
The 26-year-old Real Madrid striker should be approaching his peak, but his 19 goals in 65 international matches is average, and he went 15 matches without a France goal before losing his place to Olivier Giroud.
''It's not going to last 10 years,'' Benzema said dismissively of his drought in October.
France coach Didier Deschamps wasn't willing to wait and responded by dropping Benzema for three straight games. Benzema seems to have responded, also having been urged to work harder at Madrid by Carlo Ancelotti and his predecessor, Jose Mourinho.
Things may have come too easily for Benzema, who on Saturday helped Real Madrid win the Champions League.
He was thrust into the spotlight after breaking into the Lyon team as a 17-year-old and scored over 30 goals three years later. He won the European Championship at the Under-17 level with France in 2004, and was one of the so-called ''Generation 87'' - a group of promising players born in 1987 that included Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez.
The assumption was that they would follow in the footsteps of Zinedine Zidane's golden generation. Ben Arfa, Menez and Nasri have drifted away from the national team and only Benzema is going to Brazil.
Benzema has close control, dribbling, passing, a deft touch and a powerful shot, is strong, fairly quick and decent in the air. Yet there are doubts whether he's hungry enough to be an out-and-out scorer given that he has never scored a hat trick for France or in 159 league games for Madrid.
France needs him to score more regularly because Ribery is a winger and Giroud is not a great finisher.
Benzema scored 14 goals in 17 games during his best club spell this season, between January and March, even outshining Cristiano Ronaldo with two goals in the 4-3 defeat to bitter rival Barcelona. However, those were his last league goals for the club and he has managed to score only one since - the winner in the first-leg victory against Bayern Munich in their Champions League semifinal.
However, he played a crucial part in the 4-0 second-leg win with his outstanding passing, and his ability to drop deep and release teammates with pinpoint passes helps Madrid's laser-fast counterattacks.
This was evident when he set up Angel Di Maria for the opening goal in the 2-1 Copa Del Rey final win against Barcelona.
The problem for France is that if Benzema turns provider, who then will score given that France plays with only one center forward? He wants to be constantly involved in play and sometimes drifts about. At Euro 2012, that unbalanced the team, leaving it with no focal point in attack.
However, the defenses he faced at Euro 2012 - England, Ukraine, Sweden and Spain - were tighter than the ones he'll encounter next month.
The Swiss are usually tough to break down, but Benzema must plunder goals against Honduras and Ecuador.