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Benzema has chance to shine at Euro 2012
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By JEROME PUGMIRE
DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) Karim Benzema has an opportunity to emulate French greats Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini and become his country's new icon by shining at the European Championship.
France has systematically failed since Zidane's retirement six years ago - Les Bleus haven't won a match in two major tournaments since 2006 - and only since the emergence of Benzema have things really improved.
The dynamic striker has come into his own in a breakthrough season at Real Madrid, where he scored 21 league goals, and he's the player his nation is counting on before the Group D opener against England on Monday.
"I don't know if I'm in the form of my life. I'm only 24, I hope there will be other times," said Benzema, who scored two in the recent 4-0 win over Estonia in a Euro 2012 warm-up match. "But I do feel really good. I've gained belief in myself, both with Real Madrid and with France."
While England coach Roy Hodgson says he has studied "three or four videos" of a France team which is unbeaten in 21 games and whose confidence has been restored since its abysmal 2010 World Cup campaign, Benzema is the player they must stop.
With Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri playing alongside him, Benzema could get the kind of service forwards only dream about.
"A successful Euros would be to go all the way and win it, but I think getting past the first round would be good," Benzema said Saturday, adding that he would be proud to replace Zidane in the hearts of French fans.
"I hope so. That's what you play for," he said. "Being a football player is about pleasing people. I hope we do really well so that people start loving the France team."
Benzema was 16 when England last played France in a major tournament, at Euro 2004 where Zidane scored two late goals. He was a squad player at Euro 2008, and was left out entirely by then-coach Raymond Domenech two years ago at the World Cup.
Despite his cool demeanor, Benzema admits he once felt intimidated playing for France.
"It was quite tough for me in 2008 because I was young, and then I didn't play at all in 2010. I'm much more confident than I was in 2008," he said. "I have a bit more experience now. I feel really at ease in this team and I'm impatient to start."
He has formed a close bond with coach Laurent Blanc, whose iconic moment of tenderness captured the minds of the French when they won the 1998 World Cup. In one match, Blanc kissed the bald head of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez after he'd made a save.
"I don't know, maybe I'll kiss (goalkeeper) Hugo Lloris' head," Benzema said, a smile lighting up his bearded face.
Hodgson has the utmost respect for France as he goes into his first competitive match in charge.
"If you go 21 matches unbeaten, you've got a pretty good team there," Hodgson said. "But I don't get the feeling the players are cowed by the task."
England will be without Wayne Rooney, depriving the fans in Donetsk of the chance to see two of Europe's best strikers against each other.
"It's better for us, because Rooney's a top-class player who can score a lot of goals for them," France midfielder Yohan Cabaye said. "Karim has a very important part to play for us."
In Rooney's absence, Hodgson must decide on his best attack, with winger Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck expected to start together.
Their pace and skill can hurt France's sluggish center-half pairing of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami - providing they get service.
"It is an opportunity to run at defenders," Young said. "That is what I am there to do. There is no better feeling when I do that."
Updated June 9, 2012