x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Brilliant Benzema and France side-step aggressive Honduras

Unlike the petulant strikers of four years ago, a mature France showed up on Sunday and, led by a striker, Karim Benzema, breezed by Honduras, writes Richard Jolly.

Karim Benzema reacts after France's 3-0 win over Honduras on Sunday at the 2014 World Cup. Benzema scored twice in the win in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Franck Fife / AFP / June 15, 2014
Karim Benzema reacts after France's 3-0 win over Honduras on Sunday at the 2014 World Cup. Benzema scored twice in the win in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Franck Fife / AFP / June 15, 2014

Nasty and niggly, dirty and defensive, Honduras are shaping up as the villains of this wonderful World Cup.

It is a shame for a small nation who should inspire the sympathy underdogs often receive, but they have only themselves to blame.

This was a defeat that was attributable to France’s greater ability and Karim Benzema’s brilliance, but also to Honduras’s unedifying approach.

It was a game that boiled down to one duel: Paul Pogba against Wilson Palacios.

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The Frenchman had the power and the quality to dominate the midfield.

The Honduran appeared to conclude his best chance was to get Pogba sent off.

Instead, he made the early exit last night while gifting France the penalty that brought a deserved lead.

Yet, spitefulness threatened to bring its reward. Palacios writhed on the ground in apparent agony after first trampling Pogba and then reacting theatrically when the Frenchman kicked out petulantly. Referee Sandro Ricci deemed each offence worthy of the same sanction and cautioned both.

So, when Yohan Cabaye chipped a pass into the penalty area to Pogba and Palacios, eschewing football for American football, made a lineman’s block, he incurred a second caution and was shown the red card. It felt an inevitable outcome, just as it did when Benzema stroked his spot kick past Noel Valladares.

It ended the Honduran resistance, though not Benzema’s quest to score more or the whiff of controversy that surrounded the game.

France’s second goal followed the forward’s volley. It rebounded off the post, struck Valladares and, goal-line technology proved, just crossed the line before the unfortunate goalkeeper could claw it back.

Four years ago, when Fifa were still Luddites, the goal might not have been given.

Four years ago, however, France were the World Cup’s resident antiheroes, disgracing themselves with dismal performances and departing early.

It was about a strike then – the players’ misguided response to the decision to send Nicolas Anelka home – and a striker now. Benzema scored his second in scintillating fashion with a rasping drive from an acute angle after Mathieu Debuchy’s similarly forceful effort was blocked.

The 3-0 final score flattered the losers. If the woodwork harmed Honduras when France scored their second, it helped them preserve parity for 43 minutes. Valladares did superbly to tip Blaise Matuidi’s rising shot on to the bar.

Then, when Patrice Evra advanced and whipped in a cross, Antoine Griezmann climbed highest and headed against the upright.

The Real Sociedad winger has been chosen by Didier Deschamps to replace Franck Ribery and France missed neither the injured Bayern Munich winger or the omitted Samir Nasri. Rather, they have acquired a nice balance.

There is force and finesse in the heart of the midfield, creativity on the flanks – where the elusive Mathieu Valbuena was excellent – and potency in attack, courtesy of Benzema, who now has eight goals in his past seven games for his country.

The days when he was seen as France’s great underachiever are consigned to the past.

Benzema launched a bombardment of the Honduras goal. At the other end, Hugo Lloris was untroubled, even when Luis Suarez’s side had a full complement of players. Their game plan didn’t seem to include an attacking intent, beyond assaulting their opponents.

With two-goal and one-man advantages, Deschamps sensibly substituted Pogba, sparing him a potential suspension or, indeed, an injury. Luis Garrido, Boniek Garcia and Emilio Izaguirre were all guilty of shocking challenges but, somehow, Honduras still ended the game with 10 men.

The Central American state has the unwanted reputation of being the world’s most violent country. Their tackling certainly suggested it is.

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