Five friendly takeaways for Europe's World Cup-bound teams

Thursday March 6th, 2014

Karim Benzema's (10) showing vs. Netherlands may have cemented his place in France's World Cup starting lineup.
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Wednesday's fixtures saw the last round of matches before the World Cup squads are announced, and for the coaches of the European contenders, their last chance to spend time with players before naming a long-list squad has now passed.

Here is what they might have learned this week:

Benzema has to start for France

During his run of 16 months and 1,224 minutes without a goal for France, Karim Benzema was dropped by Didier Deschamps, who has picked Olivier Giroud (11 starts) more often than the Real Madrid forward (eight) in his two years in charge. But France's 2-0 win over Holland in Paris made one decision easy for Deschamps to make: Benzema, scorer of France's first goal off a cross from debutant Antoine Griezmann, has his mojo back.

"I'm happy in my life, happy with my football, and happy to come to France and be part of this team," Benzema, who has recently become a father, told the French press before the game.

The same cannot be said of Giroud, who was dropped from Arsenal's biggest game of the season, the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich in place of 20-year-old rookie Yaya Sanogo. Giroud will still be on the plane to Brazil, but no longer as the first choice.

Just as encouraging for Deschamps was the midfield performance of Paris Saint-Germain duo Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye, with Paul Pogba ably assisting. Matuidi scored one of the goals of the week, an acrobatic volley from Mathieu Valbuena's cross on a speedy breakaway: "Zlatan will tease me now," he said after the game.

France looked unlikely to make Brazil after losing its first leg playoff 2-0 in Ukraine, but now it could be a sleeper side to watch in the summer.

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Evolution, not revolution, for Spain

Every tournament, Vicente del Bosque knows how to change things up. His Spain side won the last World Cup with a defense that never conceded in the knockout stage; in Euro 2012, Spain destroyed Italy in the final with a false No. 9. This summer, the world champion is preparing to defend its crown, and win an unprecedented fourth straight title, with a Brazilian-born center forward up front. That Diego Costa, scorer of 17 goals for Atletico Madrid this season, played the full 90 minutes was taken as a sign that Del Bosque likes what he sees in the forward.

"He looks like a warrior in every sense and we're not used to seeing this type of player for La Roja," said Spanish TV presenter Michael Robinson on his blog after the game. "He has all the attributes of an old-fashioned No. 9, but also he has a subtle touch."

It was another player with Brazilian heritage, Thiago Alcantara, who also did his chances no harm with an outstanding midfield display in the 1-0 win over Italy. Thiago, whose father Mazinho won the 1994 World Cup with Brazil, also played the full 90 and made more passes inside the final third than the whole of the Italy side. He looked like a ready-made replacement for Xavi Hernandez - and could even challenge his former Barcelona teammate for a starting place.

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Belgian rivalries all over the pitch

Liverpool's Simon Mignolet thinks he should be Belgium's starting goalkeeper at the World Cup, but No. 1 Thibaut Courtois has publicly urged him to show some respect. That is happening at the other end of the pitch, where Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku are fighting it out for one starting place in Marc Wilmots' 4-3-3 formation.

Benteke has the edge but he did miss an open goal from seven yards out with his team 1-0 ahead against Ivory Coast. The game finished 2-2, but at least Benteke's rivalry with Lukaku is more civilized.

"We have a healthy rivalry," Benteke told Het Lasstse Nieuws this week. "Whether it's me or Romelu playing, we both want to help the team. And there are still a lot of things that I can learn from Romelu."

Mignolet could learn from that kind of humility: although it's easier for Benteke to say that when, if fit, he is Wilmots's preferred choice.

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Hodgson left with more questions than answers

For England coach Roy Hodgson, the friendly against Denmark was meant to help resolve some key questions for him: Ashley Cole or Luke Shaw as back-up to Leighton Baines at left back? Can Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge work as a pairing? Is Jack Wilshere better playing deeper alongside Steven Gerrard, or further forward? At the end of the 1-0 win, Hodgson was no clearer to finding the answers.

Cole and Shaw were both exemplary, though Cole has the vast edge in experience. Sturridge was shunted out to the left while Rooney played center forward, and it was only when Rooney was subbed off that Sturridge moved to the center and scored the winning goal. The Liverpool fans delighted that England had five Reds starting for the first time since 1977 were quickly griping that Sturridge was played out of position for most of the game.

Wilshere's influence was overshadowed by Adam Lallana, the versatile and sharp-thinking Southampton captain whose cross set up the winner. Lallana could even start England¹s opener against Italy. But the big doubt remains over Rooney, undroppable for England but once again Hodgson is no closer to knowing what position can bring out his best form in and England shirt - and when he forces in-form players out of position, that becomes a problem for the team.

Switzerland might have solved its scoring problem

It was the equivalent of Diego Costa scoring against Brazil: Switzerland center forward Josip Drmic scored two goals in seven minutes in the 2-2 draw against Croatia, where he also has nationality, hence his suppressed celebrations. It was an impressive performance from the 21-year-old who has also scored 11 goals for FC Nuremberg this season.

Now Drmic seems to have leap-frogged over the likes of Admir Mehmedi, Mario Gavranovic and Eren Derdiyok to start for the seeded Swiss in Brazil.

"If he manages to maintain his form until the World Cup, I fear it's bad news for all the teams who face Switzerland," Marek Mintal, the former Nuremberg striker who is now on the coaching staff there and has become a mentor to Drmic, told

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