France vs Germany World Cup 2014: Karim Benzema’s back at the front but falls just short of brilliance

The supply line was established and now Benzema had to deliver

the maracana

France have been waiting for the Karim Benzema who delivers such headturning displays for Real Madrid to turn up for some time. He could not be found here last night.

The 26-year-old had earned high praise from coach Didier Deschamps after a group stage in which he scored three times and was only denied a fourth by both an errant penalty against Switzerland and a fabulous last-minute strike ruled out by an officious referee declaring time was up seconds earlier.

Expectations were high of a player who had been left behind for the 2010 World Cup, especially given the clamour for a tactical switch in France’s front three which placed him at the heart of everything Deschamps was planning.

Against Nigeria at the last-16 stage, Olivier Giroud was deployed as the attacking spearhead with Benzema on the left and Mathieu Valbuena on the right. Giroud was dropped here for Antoine Griezmann, who changed the game in Brasilia, with Benzema reverting to centre-forward.

The supply line was established. Benzema had to deliver. His performances may have been enough to convince Madrid to offer him a lucrative new three-year contract – incidentally landing a further blow to Arsenal, who have courted his services for some time, on a day when Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Giroud were all considered surplus to requirements for a World Cup quarter-final – but in a tournament where so many leading players have thrived, France’s leading man fluffed his lines.

 

Germany began with a very high defensive line and a compact midfield compressing the space for Valbuena and Griezmann to weave their intricate patterns. However, as Algeria had found in their last-16 clash, there was joy to be had with a more rudimentary approach and Germany’s vulnerability to a simple long ball reared its head again here.

There was a sporadic but very real threat. Benzema had already sidefooted wide when promisingly placed after clever work from Valbuena in the left channel when Germany took the lead.

Mats Hummels headed home Toni Kroos’s 12th-minute free-kick, rising above 21-year-old French centre-back Raphaël Varane, whose promise is undeniable but perhaps inexperience told in that vital moment where concentration and focus are paramount. Four of the last five goals France have conceded came from set-pieces – it is a trend which has threatened to cost Deschamps’ side dear long before now.

Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris fielded a question at the pre-match press conference lamenting France’s slow starts to matches in Brazil by declaring that they had not conceded in those lackadaisical beginnings. They did here and the toughest test of the newfound French unity – so refreshingly at odds with the mutinous chaos of four years ago in South Africa – was at hand.

A long ball forward by Mamadou Sakho found Griezmann, who in turn delivered a pass for Valbuena, whose left-foot shot drew a fine save from Manuel Neuer. The rebound fell to Benzema, who could not contort his body to facilitate anything more than a weak attempt at goal which took a deflection and led to a corner which came to nothing.

Benzema headed a good cross from Patrice Evra straight at a defender, hoping in vain for a penalty, before he elegantly controlled Paul Pogba’s pass, cut inside menacingly on to his right foot but then fired a tame effort that Neuer saved.

He seemed burdened by the responsibility, although it was one he did not shirk. Collecting a 76th-minute cross in the box he struck a left-foot shot that was blocked by Hummels.

On the path to tournament finals, Germany are that little more streetwise. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger picked up cynical yellow cards when France threatened to find a glimmer of space.

A fifth consecutive semi-final reveals a know-how that can often only be overcome by the brilliance of the biggest names. Benzema was joined by Loïc Rémy and then Giroud. His last-gasp shot in the 95th minute, having jinked on to his left foot to find space, had Neuer fending off a fierce drive. It might just have been the moment of brilliance that France needed – instead it came to nothing.

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