France; a team that have shown a total reversal of attitude since the farcical strop that was South Africa. No, none of that twisty-faced, strike attitude here…oh, save for maybe a certain PSG bench-warmer…but aside from that, my bitterness should not undermine just what a quality side the French are, now they’re all singing from the same feuille de chant. Their shirt is probably the best one in the whole competition as well, save for, perhaps, Germany away…
The French had only lost one game in 12 months and topped group E; the only affront to their charge being a 0-0 against Ecuador in Rio. They are strong in defence, (despite starting Mamadou Sahko sometimes), our very own Mathieu Debuchy, (‘not as much of a man’ as Bacary Sagna according to Martin Keown. Evidently the scale of which manliness is accurately measured is unknown to us lesser mortals, or else Keown is simply bitter about looking like something out of ‘Willow’). Stronger in midfield; the undeniable quality (when he’s not striking) of Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba (the same Paul Pogba whom Alex Ferguson denounced in favour of Tom Cleverly…yes, Tom Cleverly.). Karim Benzema looks a stone or so lighter and has so far been a menace up front with three goals and two assists. To pair him, Dechamps has a veritable smörgåsbord of attacking talent; Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and ex-Mag Loïc Rémy .
Only Ecuador managed to stultify Pogba and Benzema, effectively de-toothing Les Blues but that’s not Nigeria’s style of play and this match looked geared up to be a cracker.
Benzema started on the left to accommodate Giroud as a target-man. A peculiar decision by Deschamps but this side have a unity that they have not had for a very long time. Maybe it was all in the long game?
Both teams took the game by the scruff of the neck and it was a blistering, end to end experience for the entirety of the 1st half. France surged forward, Pogba, Matuidi and Cabaye showing no mercy in their challenges; Nigeria soaked up their attacks and struck on the counter with the pace of their front line; but there wasn’t much between the two sides.
Nigeria had the ball in the net on 17 mins, Eminike’s front post header from a free kick was prevented by the offside flag.
Four minutes later Paul Pogba drew an amazing save from Enyeama, smashing a 12-yard volley toward goal after a wonderful return from Valbuena.
France held most of the possession in the 1st half, Nigeria waiting patiently to spring their counter-attack with Odemwingie and Moses causing problems in the wide positions not to mention Eminike and Musa always ready to run in behind. Lloris was made to save a few shots at one end whilst at the other, a few speculative efforts and decent movement from France but nothing that really tested Enyeama. France’s passing in the final third looked poor; there was no decisive link-up play and Benzema cut an isolated and frustrated figure on the left hand side.
The second half began with more poor passing between Giroud and Benzema that led to nothing and the previous pace of the game fizzled out. A horrible challenge from Matuidi got Onazi stretchered off and it was at this point Descamps acted. The ineffective Giroud making way for Antoine Griezmann. Then the game changed.
A liberated Benzema, now playing through the middle, had the best chance of the game on 69 minutes; a superb 1-2 with Griezmann drew a reaction save from Eneyama and the ball was hacked from the line by Moses. France’s tails were up and their barrage continued; Pogba ran the assault from the midfield as Nigeria began to fade. A superb volley from Cabaye rattled the crossbar then a free kick from Valbuena met Benzema’s head and drew yet another save from the keeper, but the resulting corner caught Eneyama out and Pogba headed France 1-0 up. Minutes later, it could have been two after Pogba sent Griezmann round the back of the defence and forced Eneyama into another fine save. Nigeria looked spent; the early pace of their attacks turning to castles of sand before the white-topped French tide.
With 5 mins of injury time to go, Griezmann was rewarded with a goal for his efforts, nipping in through the Nigeria defence and tapping the ball off Joseph Yobo to put France into the last 8.
This was a classy display from the French as goes to show what a certain harmonie in a squad can bring. Deschamps’ decisiveness when a plan is not working was the real turning point of this game (A plan B! Imagine that, eh?) and France look to be a real threat in this competition. They were a pleasure to watch tonight and to put two goals past the African champions whose football has been just as pleasurable to watch, is tantamount to that.
Germany or Algeria next for Deschamps’ men and whatever the outcome, I think it might be a little bit good.
SPECIAL is out this week and flying out the door. You can take out an annual subscription for £17.99 or a quarterly subscription for £5.99 no matter where you are in the world. You will get instant accessto this latest issue as well as everyone we publish over the next year or four months. You will also get access to the previous 30 issues we have published as well. All you need to do is click here and you are on the way to getting access to your true faith subscription.