(Reuters) – 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.
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 with 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 Oct. 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 teammate. “It was not easy for him. Now he’ll be super confident and a self-confident Karim is what we need,” he said
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)