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France bank on Karim

France players during a practice session

Brasilia: When Karim Benzema was hauled off in the 83rd minute of their 0-1 World Cup qualifying defeat at home to Spain in March last year, he was sent packing with a cacophony of boos and whistles.

Fast forward to Brazil and Benzema is now the toast of France, with three goals in as many games and Man-of-the-Match performances in the victories over Honduras and Switzerland. He has earned effusive praise from coach Didier Deschamps and his teammates and France will need the 26-year-old to continue in this fashion if they are to beat Nigeria in Monday’s last-16 clash, here, at the Estadio Nacional, and set up a quarter final tie against Germany or Algeria.

A more mature personality after a series of off-the-field problems and struggles with his weight, Benzema has become a leader in the French side not only in the forward line, but in a wider sense as well. “Karim is performing at an extremely high level and he is the one who makes us play,” said teammate Antoine Griezmann. Deschamps is only too happy to agree.

“Karim has extraordinary movement which underpins the team’s play. We have always focused on his contribution apart from his goals, which is something that doesn’t happen elsewhere.”

Injury worries, though, could haunt the French ahead of this tricky tie. Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho escaped punishment for his elbow-charge against Ecuador, yet may miss Monday’s game due to injury. The former Paris Saint-Germain centre-back is struggling with a hamstring problem and Deschamps is unlikely to take any risks.

With Laurent Koscielny recovering from an Achilles tendon injury, Eliaquim Mangala could get the nod at centre-back alongside Raphael Varane. That said, Koscielny is still there in France’s scheme of things.

Furthermore, Paul Pogba and Moussa Sissoko will both be hopeful of starting in midfield, with the Juventus star currently sitting in pole position to feature from the start.

Yohan Cabaye is likely to come into the team in place of Morgan Schneiderlin after missing the Ecuador game due to suspension. Rested against Ecuador, Mathieu Valbuena is also in line to return, while Deschamps must choose between Griezmann and Olivier Giroud to complete France’s front line alongside Benzema.

“The first objective was to get through the group phase. Now it’s to go as far as possible. We are competitors and we are ambitious, but we know that we have opponents against us and we might lose. We’re aware of our qualities. But anything is possible in a knockout match… Can’t afford to relax,” cautioned Koscielny.

Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi has some injury problems after the narrow 2-3 loss to Argentina in his side’s final group fixture. Michael Babatunde sustained a freak arm injury in that game and is unlikely to return to full fitness before the end of the tournament. (AGENCIES)