On paper, France’s triumph over Nigeria was typical of a Didier Deschamps team; gritty and ground out, underpinned by determined defending but rather lacking in flair. Like so much of this World Cup, however, the reality was a little more complicated.
Maybe the coach himself would have preferred it if the cliché had really been so. Deschamps has often prized control over most things – certainly in his spell in charge of Marseille, as those who remember the interminable Champions League games at the Stade Velodrome with Manchester United in 2011 and Internazionale in 2012 will attest. There was precious little of it, however, in the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia.
The climate had its part to play in that, with Karim Benzema joining the ranks of players and coaches struggling with the prospect of early afternoon kick-offs, admitting it was “difficult” after the match. Undeniably, it affected the pace of the game, and the ensuing fallibility left open spaces for two ambitious teams to attack. Paul Pogba almost made the most of oceans of room midway through the first half, when his stinging volley was excellently pushed away by Vincent Enyeama.
If one considers the physical workload involved throughout, perhaps we should remember Olivier Giroud as the unlikely hero of the hour that he played. The popular narrative of the game will count the Arsenal striker’s exit as the turning point, with Antoine Griezmann’s introduction giving France a much more pleasing shape – much like Florent Malouda in 2006 – and allowing Benzema to move inside from a flank on which he had been isolated and ineffective. Benzema’s effort which was cleared off the line after a one-two with the Real Sociedad man hinted at their complicity. It would be a surprise if they did not start together against Germany on Friday.
Yet Giroud had certainly done his bit, and his teammates knew it. “We have to congratulate Olivier on his work,” said captain Hugo Lloris after the match. “He banged, banged, banged away and after, Antoine and Karim made the most of it.” Griezmann later echoed his skipper’s sentiment. Beyond softening up the opposition, Giroud’s spadework extended another growing theme of France’s World Cup – a selflessness completely juxtaposed to the humiliating fall-outs of recent tournaments, peaking with the mutiny of Knysna in 2010.
The damage from that has barely healed, despite Lloris’ claim last week that the French public had forgotten all about it in the light of the current crop’s positive direction. It is easy to forget that much good recovery work had been done post-South Africa by Laurent Blanc, but it quickly all fell to bits at the first sign of trouble. When Les Bleus lost their first match of Euro 2012, against Sweden in Kiev (which didn’t compromise their qualification for the quarter-finals), cracks appeared, and France slid out amongst recriminations and arguments with journalists. The scars remain close to the surface.
Yet this time, there is optimism that it could be different. If there are factions, they are well-hidden. At the final whistle in Brasilia, Mathieu Valbuena and Giroud celebrated enthusiastically, side-by-side in front of the travelling fans. There was no sense of who had done what, who had scored points during the match, or anything like that, but simply a collective joy in their achievement.
“From the start, we’ve moved forward together as twenty-three (players) and we’ll continue to go forward as twenty-three,” Yohan Cabaye said. “We’re twenty-three brothers in the France team,” added Valbuena. Even Benzema, no stranger to bluntness, was particular in not promoting his understanding with Griezmann as a better option than working with Giroud, though it has often seemed as if he and the Arsenal man are less compatible. “It’s going great with him (Griezmann),” said Benzema, “just like it is with all the others.”
Without that sort of unity, it would have been hard to see France overpowering Nigeria. The African champions were bold and had little luck, as their outgoing coach Stephen Keshi was quick to point out afterwards. Emmanuel Emenike’s disallowed first-half goal – on account of one of the tightest offside calls imaginable – seemed to rile even less than France’s Blaise Matuidi being allowed to stay on the field after an X-rated challenge on Ogenyi Onazi, who left the stadium with protection on his injured ankle and in a wheelchair.
That close shave, as much as anything, seemed to constrict Matuidi, whose attacking sorties have emphasised the level of fluency that France have reached in the tournament to date. An indefatigable competitor, he will have to be at his energetic best when they meet Germany at the Maracana on Friday. He was at least ably supported by Cabaye and Pogba against Nigeria and it was fitting that the Juventus man got the opener, even it was not that it came from an Enyeama mistake, completely out of keeping with both the goalkeeper’s fine match and his excellent season in Ligue 1 with Lille.
Still, France’s domestic competition couldn’t be further from minds at the moment. Valbuena, who Deschamps initially tried to sell when he arrived at the Velodrome and has since thrived in a de facto number ten role, was again key on the wide right of attack for France. His battle against Benedikt Howedes will surely be one of the key factors in the quarter-final.
So will France’s ability to defend a little more sharply. They kept Nigeria out, but only just, with plenty of space available behind the adventurous Mathieu Debuchy and Matuidi the only one of the midfield three with convincing defensive capabilities (and bear in mind he has his hands full backing up Patrice Evra). Yet the extraordinary feeling and spirit of that play-off turnaround against Ukraine, which got France here in the first place, is still burning bright. That, for now, is enough.
- Sports & Recreation
- Didier Deschamps
- Olivier Giroud
- Karim Benzema