By this point of the World Cup in South Africa four years ago, France had taken just one point from its opening two games, forward Nicolas Anelka had been sent home for a profanity-laden outburst at the coach and the team had gone on strike from training. It’s fair to say things have gone somewhat better this time around in Brazil.
After two matches at this World Cup, France have garnered two wins, scoring eight goals in the process. It would take a four-goal defeat against Ecuador in their final group game to prevent them from topping the section and that coupled with a heavy win for Switzerland against Honduras in the concurrent match to prevent them from progressing to the round of 16. Even with their recent history of veering from the sublime to the ridiculous, those are scenarios that are too far-fetched to seriously consider.
In two games, Didier Deschamps’ side have gone from dark horses to genuine contenders to go all the way in Brazil. The talent in the squad means that such expectations are hardly a surprise. Indeed, it is only the recent history of France -- at the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012 and, indeed, in qualifying for Brazil -- in failing to harness that ability which meant a “but” usually followed any commendation of their prospects.
Key to their performances so far has been the form of Karim Benzema. On the back of his best season yet for Real Madrid, the striker looks sharper and hungrier than ever before, certainly than he has previously done in a French shirt. He has three goals and could really have more. He didn’t get credit for his strike against the post that went into the net off Honduras’ goalkeeper in an opening 3-0 win, while he produced a brilliantly inventive lob against Switzerland that was chalked off due to the unfortunate timing of the referee’s final whistle.
More than just goalscorer, though, Benzema also showed when moved to the left side against Switzerland that he was willing and able to play creator. Benzema supplied two assists in a 5-2 win and terrorized Switzerland down their right flank.
According to reports, Deschamps is set to understandably preparing to ring the changes against Ecuador at the famed Maracana, although Benzema is not thought to be one of those who will be rested. While there is an incentive to recover ahead of a last-16 match, likely against Nigeria, neither Deschamps nor Benzema will want to lose momentum. Switzerland took advantage of some sloppy defending to score two goals late on and Deschamps will surely have focused on ensuring that complacency does not start to seep in.
Yohan Cabaye will be the one enforced absentee, with the midfielder suspended for picking up two yellow cards in the tournament. French publication L’Equipe believes there will be first starts of the World Cup for Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin, Bacary Sagna and young Paris Saint-Germain left-back Lucas Digne.
Ecuador will be hoping that France do take their foot off the gas. They go into their final group match needing to match Switzerland’s result in order to reach the last 16 -- barring a big swing in goal difference if both win. Thus far Reinaldo Rueda’s team have been involved in two end-to-end games that could have gone either way. Against Switzerland they conceded an injury-time goal to go down to an agonizing 2-1 defeat, before the score line was reversed against Honduras when Ecuador game back to win from a goal down.
In truth, they have largely matched expectations so far in Brazil. They have been a real threat with their direct attacking play down the flanks, but their defense has kept them consistently vulnerable. There is no doubt who has been their star man so far. Enner Valencia finished the Liga MX season in a rich vein of goalscoring form for Pachuca and has carried that to Brazil where he has found the net three times in two matches. Rudea will now be hoping his star forward can pose the French defense similar problems and earn Ecuador progress from the group stage for the second time in only three ever visits to the World Cup.
It is easy to see why France have been getting praise, with their play a joy to watch. Expectations must be tempered, though, by the fact that they have so far only faced a Honduras team who are perhaps the poorest side in the competition and, in a frenetic match, a Switzerland side who were an utter shambles. France’s defense showed some vulnerability against Switzerland and, especially if winger Jefferson Montero produces his best, Ecuador could pose problems.
Still, even if they do make several changes, France will surely have too much for Ecuador going forward. Ecuador’s match with Honduras was the type of direct, end-to-end affair rarely seen in top-level soccer anymore. If France are sufficiently motivated, the same approach from Ecuador will see them concede more than just the one goal this time around.
France 3-2 Ecuador
Betting odds (Bovada.lv)
France win: 10/13
Ecuador win: 7/2
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Group E match will kick off from the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro at 4 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN.