Karim Benzema credits coach Didier Deschamps with helping him get through the worst spell of his international career, and now feels brash enough to predict France can "can do something extraordinary" at the World Cup after starting with a 3-0 win against Honduras.
Benzema scored twice against Honduras in Sunday's Group E match, taking his tally to eight goals in the past seven international games, and he played a decisive role in the other goal — the first at a World Cup to be validated by goal-line technology.
The 26-year-old Benzema was left out of the last World Cup squad, and his goals were his first in a major tournament. He flopped at the European Championship two years ago and drew a blank as a raw striker at Euro 2008.
Looking at Benzema against Honduras, it was hard to see how he'd ever had a crisis of confidence. In the absence of the injured Franck Ribery, he is thriving as the leader of this new-look team — one that has shaken off the shackles that hindered the fraught France side of 2010.
"It's a new team, a new era, a team full of talent that can do something extraordinary at this World Cup," Benzema said Monday. "I think I can still improve. I'm feeling full of confidence, I'm injury free and you have to make the most of it."
Benzema hit a career low last year, after going 15 international games without scoring and losing his place to Olivier Giroud.
"I was going through a bad spell and things had to change. There was competition for places, other strikers were scoring and playing well," Benzema said. "I spoke with the coach, and I was the first to accept that I wasn't playing at my best."
Although Deschamps dropped him, he was constantly working on getting the Real Madrid striker's swagger back.
"It was more of a case of him working on psychological things with me. We shared things and talked a lot, even in the bad times," Benzema said. "Above all it was psychological, giving me confidence, and then it all came down to the hard work I did on the pitch."
Deschamps says there were some tense exchanges.
"We've had some situations to resolve over the past two years, not just on a football level but on a human level. There were times when things weren't so pleasant for him and I needed to tell him certain things," Deschamps said. "But all credit to him. I can't teach him how to shoot or how to pass, he already knows how to do that, but when he has that inner strength, that rage, it makes him stronger."
Deschamps says the turning point came last October, when sections of the French crowd mocked Benzema after he came on against Australia in a friendly match. His pride was clearly stung, and it proved to be the night the normally self-contained Benzema let his emotions pour out after ending his scoring drought.
"The crowd made fun of him a bit, and his reaction (when he scored) changed a lot of things," Deschamps said. "People saw he wasn't the same person, he no longer had that closed expression on his face."
France great Zinedine Zidane, now Madrid's assistant coach, has been another influential figure.
"I had him on the phone before the (Honduras) match and he wished me good luck, told me to enjoy myself, to take risks and to play the way I know," Benzema said. "After the match he left me a message to say that he was pleased for us."