After struggling in his first two Euro 2020 outings and facing calls to be dropped, France’s Karim Benzema repaid coach Didier Deschamps’ faith with two goals to help the world champions qualify top of Group F on Wednesday.
Les Bleus’ 2-2 draw against defending champions Portugal gave them five points and a last-16 meeting with Switzerland on Monday.
Benzema, back in the squad after a nearly six-year absence including a row with Deschamps, looked out of sorts in the first two matches against Germany and Hungary.
Before the tournament, in a warm-up game, the Real Madrid forward had missed a third consecutive penalty for France.
France top the group thanks to a Karim Benzema brace!
Portugal finish Group F in third and go through.
Not a bad game, that… 👌
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) June 23, 2021
Yet it was Benzema who stepped up for the penalty on the stroke of halftime – rather than fellow strikers Kylian Mbappe or Antoine Griezmann – to wrongfoot Rui Patricio and make it 1-1 after Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener, also a spot-kick.
“It’s nice to see. He was looking for goals but he had not lost his self-confidence or my faith for that matter,” said Deschamps, who ignored calls in France for the return of Olivier Giroud to the starting lineup.
Benzema’s clinical shot from Paul Pogba’s through ball put France ahead again early in the second half, and Ronaldo’s second penalty was not enough to dislodge them from first in the Group F standings.
The ever-threatening Mbappe won France’s penalty on Wednesday and Griezmann snatched a goal against Hungary in their last game – but Benzema is now the team’s top scorer in this tournament.
“There was a lot of pressure on me, which is normal, but I never gave up and was focused on creating space and chances,” said Benzema, a Muslim of Algerian descent who had accused Deschamps of bowing to racists when leaving him out in 2016.
“I didn’t really have doubts but I knew there were a lot of expectations after being absent for five or six years.”
Benzema had not scored for France since October 8, 2015, when he grabbed two in a 4-0 win against Armenia.
“He needed those goals, the country needed him to score,” said 1998 world champion Youri Djorkaeff.
France centre back Raphael Varane was delighted for his Real Madrid team-mate. “It was not easy for him. Now, he’ll be super confident and a self-confident Karim is what we need,” he said.
A late Leon Goretzka goal salvaged a 2-2 draw for Germany against Hungary on Wednesday night, in a whip-saw contest that sets the Germans up for a June 29 match against England at Wembley.
Hungary looked like they would shock Germany and send them out of the tournament after Adam Szalai’s diving header in the 11th minute opened the scoring.
Kai Havertz drew Germany level in the 66th minute but Hungary retook the lead seconds after the re-start when Andras Schafer ran past the defenders and headed the ball into the net.
But with coach Joachim Loew throwing on substitutes to gain the point needed to progress to the last 16, Goretzka’s strike provided Germany with the late lifeline.
Hungarians have spent more than half a century wondering if they would ever have a national team to be proud of again but as their players stood in front of their supporters, singing the national anthem with tears running down their faces, it was clear that long wait was over.
The record will show that Hungary finished bottom of Euro 2020 Group F without a win in their three games and were eliminated from the tournament.
But another way of looking at Hungary’s results is that, despite being written off as no-hopers in the toughest group, they held world champions and tournament favourites France and were six minutes away from qualifying with a victory in Germany – until Leon Goretzka’s late equaliser.
Were it not for the final six minutes of their opening game against Portugal, when they conceded three goals, they would have been unbeaten – and as far as their loud and proud supporters were concerned, they might as well have been.
Hungary proudly exits the tournament, though UEFA will investigate “possible instances” of discriminatory actions amid allegations of racist and anti-LGBTQ chants.