France looks to Mbappé and Benzema to win a 3rd World Cup

PARIS (AP) — Kylian Mbappé helped France win the World Cup four years ago, becoming a superstar in the process. This time, the tournament could serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of Paris Saint-Germain, and also a chance to play in his favorite position.

For Karim Benzema, it’s an opportunity to showcase the talent that led him to winning the prestigious Ballon d’Or at nearly 35 years old.

Their paths to Qatar have greatly diverged.

When the 19-year-old Mbappé scored in the World Cup final four years ago, he was the youngest player since Pelé in 1958 to score in the deciding match. Benzema was nowhere close to Moscow at the time because the Real Madrid forward was exiled from the national team.

Although they played together at last year’s European Championship, Benzema was only just coming back with Les Bleus and things didn’t quite click between them.

They’ve since shown how effective they are in tandem — sharing six goals in one World Cup qualifying win that France coach Didier Deschamps called “a beautiful night of soccer.”

Benzema is second all-time on Madrid’s scoring list behind Cristiano Ronaldo with 329 goals.

Mbappé, expected to break Edinson Cavani’s PSG record of 200 this season, already has 28 goals for France. Benzema has 37, with 10 in his past 16 internationals.

They will form the most lethal attack in Qatar. Especially if Mbappé has the freedom he craves away from the frustration of playing center forward for PSG.

He’d much rather peel off a target man like Olivier Giroud, thereby using his pace and skill to attack from deep or wide.

“I have much more freedom (with France). The coach (Deschamps) knows there is a No. 9 like Olivier (Giroud) who takes care of the defenders so I can run around, move into space, ask for the ball,” Mbappé said in September, after Giroud set him up for a goal in a Nations League win over Austria. “With Paris it’s different, that doesn’t happen, I’m asked to play as a pivot (central striker).”

After a 0-0 draw with Reims earlier this month, Mbappé took his frustrations online by posting a sarcastic-looking hashtag entitled #pivotgang on Instagram. A “pivot” is the French soccer term for a central striker who also operates as a link player with his back to goal, like Giroud does and Mbappé doesn’t want to.

Giroud needs two goals to equal Thierry Henry’s national record of 51. But Deschamps might prefer Antoine Griezmann, now that he’s back in form with Atletico Madrid.

STRESSFUL TIMES

Mbappé has had other things on his mind, too, recently denying he’s unhappy at PSG and that he’s pushing for a move to Real Madrid — which has twice failed to sign him.

He’s also had to deal with allegations from French investigative media Mediapart claiming that PSG hired an external company to create fake Twitter accounts in a bid to denigrate media perceived as hostile to the club. Mediapart claimed former PSG midfielder Adrien Rabiot was targeted along with Mbappé — after reports in 2019 that Mbappé wanted to join Madrid.

So getting back to business with France at the World Cup could be a relief for Mbappé. However, he has a point to prove after flopping at last year’s European Championship.

Although Benzema had four goals and Griezmann netted once, Mbappé didn’t score and missed the decisive penalty when France got knocked out by Switzerland in the round of 16.

ALARM BELLS

France should take that loss to Switzerland as a healthy warning sign.

Not since Brazil lost the 1998 final to France has the defending World Cup champion come close to retaining the title. Of the next five champions, four failed to reach the knockout stage and three were last in their group — including France in 2002.

France should be in the running for first place in Group D, along with Euro 2020 semfinalist Denmark. Australia and Tunisia are also in the group.

INJURY WOES

Deschamps has an attack that’s the envy of world soccer and two fine goalkeepers in veteran Hugo Lloris and Mike Maignan.

But Deschamps has significant injury problems to major players in defense and midfield.

Central defender Raphael Varane is doubtful after leaving the field in tears with an apparent knee injury when playing for Manchester United in the Premier League.

Fellow World Cup winner Paul Pogba has not played since April, and only has only just returned to training with Juventus following knee surgery. It gives him little time to be ready.

Pogba has also been mired in an extortion scandal involving his older brother that could generate more unwelcome headlines.

N’Golo Kanté was another key part of France’s World Cup success. But the Chelsea midfielder is out for several months after surgery on a hamstring injury.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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