by Liam McConville

Two years ago Karim Benzema was probably sitting on a beach after being left out of France’s 2010 World Cup squad following on from an indifferent first season at Real Madrid. Benzema had initially struggled to adapt to life as a ‘galactico’ and Raymond Domenech responded by taking the controversial decision to drop Benzema. It proved to be a blessing in disguise as France crashed out dramatically, Domenech becoming a figure of fun, a sad way for a coach who had previously led them to a World Cup final to bow out.

Since that disappointing summer, both France and Benzema have bounced back. The national team now under the stewardship of former Bordeaux boss Laurent Blanc have re-discovered their pride after a dismal start to their qualifying campaign. Following on from a dismal 1-0 defeat in Paris against Belarus, Les Bleus have embarked on a twenty-one game unbeaten run. They have won all three of the warm-up games, signing off with a thumping 4-0 win over Estonia, with Benzema bagging a brace.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Blanc though, he nearly lost his job in a media storm over allegations that he was looking at implementing a racial quota system in the France youth set-up. Blanc was later cleared of any wrongdoing, the former World Cup and European Championship winner carrying on with his stellar work on carving a team out of a fractured dressing room.

Meanwhile Benzema has gone from to strength to strength at the Santiago Bernabeu under the watchful eye of Jose Mourinho. In a league dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema notched over thirty goals in all competitions last season, a fantastic return even it is somewhat overshadowed by the feats of the best two players in the world.

Benzema doesn’t always start for Madrid but he has certainly overtaken fellow forward Gonzalo Higuain in the pecking order. Benzema proved himself a man for the big occasion with a goal in the first clasico of the season and bagging seven goals in ten starts in the Champions League. The former Lyon hitman is many pundits’ tip for top goal scorer and with the form he’s in it’s hard to argue against it. France should qualify rather comfortably from Group D with their main threat England meeting them in a mouth-watering clash on Monday. Should they top the group, the French would probably avoid the favourites Spain in the quarter-finals.

Firepower is certainly their strength; Benzema is joined by the likes of Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri in an exciting frontline. Olivier Giroud will provide quality back-up and may even force himself into the starting line-up after a brilliant season for Ligue 1 champions Montpellier. Although they may look a little suspect at the back, this appears to a general theme for the tournament with plenty of exciting, attacking players coming up against some quite average defences which will hopefully lead to a goal fest.

As impressive as the French have been recently the scars of 2010 and also a disappointing Euro 2008 campaign are very fresh and while this could provide extra motivation, another implosion isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. An early setback could prove fatal to their hopes but on the face of it, it seems like this side is made of sterner stuff. The draw has been relatively kind to a side that was surprisingly in the fourth pool for the draw. They have a great chance of at least reaching the semi-finals and from that stage they will be a match for anyone.

No matter how the French fare one thing is for certain, Benzema will be crucial to their chances; don’t be surprised if he fires them to glory.