Laurent Blanc is backing Karim Benzema to fire France through against Sweden
Laurent Blanc, the France coach, has predicted that his star striker Karim Benzema will score against Sweden in Kiev tomorrow.
France are on the verge of qualifying for the European Championship quarter-finals, but Benzema has so far failed to shine. Although he played his part in the 2-0 win against Ukraine, setting up Yohan Cabaye's goal with an exquisite turn and pass, more was expected of the Real Madrid striker heading into the tournament after he scored 21 league goals to help his club to the Spanish title.
France can finish top of Group D if they beat Sweden, and Blanc is tipping Benzema to play a starring role. "He can score at any time," Blanc said. "Maybe if we hadn't taken him off (in the second half against Ukraine) he would have scored, and he will most probably score in the next game. The most important thing is that we're creating chances, no matter who scores."
Blanc's point is underscored by the fact that France won the 1998 World Cup without a goal from their central striker, Stephane Guivarc'h, but with other players chipping in from midfield and defence.
France's other goal against Ukraine on Friday was scored by winger Jrmy Mnez, with Benzema also involved in the build-up.
But the 24-year-old Benzema's total of 15 goals in 47 international appearances is lower than it should be, given his ability. He has scored just three goals in his past 14 games for France and has never scored at a tournament, after being left out of the 2010 World Cup and playing twice at Euro 2008.
"I'm not focusing on whether Karim scores or not," Blanc said. "He's an important player for us, and showed he had a good understanding with the wide players against Ukraine."
Blanc made Benzema his first-choice striker as soon as he took charge of the French team nearly two years ago, and has stood by him ever since. Benzema repaid that faith with crucial goals in Euro 2012 qualifying, and further strikes in friendly wins against England and Brazil.
"For me, Benzema is among the best strikers in the world; he's up there with [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic," the France midfielder Yann M'Vila said. "I'm not worried about Karim because when he doesn't score he creates chances for others."
But Blanc is facing calls from some sections of the French media to try playing Benzema alongside Olivier Giroud, the French league's top scorer last season with 21 goals for champions Montpellier.
Giroud, who has been heavily linked with Arsenal, is a tall target man; he holds the ball up more than Benzema, who tends to drift out wide to find space when tightly marked, as he did in the 1-1 draw against England in their opening Group D match.
"People say Karim peels off too much but he often does that for Real Madrid," Blanc said. However, at Madrid, Benzema is there largely as a provider for top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo; for France he is supposed to be the No 1 goalscorer.
Blanc has so far ignored the calls to play Benzema and Giroud together, pointing to how other teams also sacrifice one of their forwards for the sake of the team's balance.
"I'm not the only one," Blanc said. "Germany have the same problem as us. They have [Miroslav] Klose and [Mario] Gomez, but only one of them plays. It's the same for the Netherlands with [Klaas-Jan] Huntelaar and [Robin] van Persie."
Benzema himself is not worried about his lack of goals either. "Making others score is good and it is a pleasure for me," he said. "I like to be part of the construction, play deep. I need this."
Sweden have nothing to play for tomorrow after their 3-2 defeat by England eliminated them from the tournament. Their two losses – the other being by Ukraine in their opening group game – led some to wonder whether star striker Ibrahimovic, who has taken breaks from international duty in the past, would hang up his Sweden boots. But the 30-year-old is already looking ahead to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
"I'll continue with the national team, absolutely," he said. "I'm still motivated and I want a lot more. This doesn't mean anything in my mind. It just makes me more motivated."
Despite transfer rumours, Ibrahimovic said he expects to stay with Milan for the remaining two years of his contract. "I want to get better than I am, and I want to continue to develop," he said.
Ibrahimovic was seen as the key for Sweden to make a run at the Euros, but few have blamed him for the team's failure.
Defensive mistakes are seen as being largely at fault for both their defeats. Ibrahimovic gave Sweden the lead against the Ukrainians, but could not find the net against England.
"Physically and mentally I've felt really good," he said. "But what good is that when you don't win? I'd rather win and not play well than to play well and not win."
Ibrahimovic also stuck up for coach Erik Hamren, whose tactics in his first major tournament have been questioned. Hamren has tried to transform the Swedish team from a traditional defensive set-up to a free-flowing and possession-based attacking team.
"The way we're playing now, we've never played better," Ibrahimovic said. "We've traditionally been known for our defence and not our attack; now it's the other way around."
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