France appeared to put fears over another early tournament implosion behind them with a comprehensive opening victory over Honduras; now they will seek to put themselves in position to make a real impact at the 2014 World Cup.
At both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 France exited meekly after much unsavory dressing-room unrest led to talent going unfilled. Coach Didier Deschamps showed he was clearly looking to avoid a repeat this time around with his decision to exclude Samir Nasri from the squad. The unavailability of another of France’s most gifted players, Franck Ribery, was forced upon Deschamps but it may also turn into a positive. The man voted third in last year’s Ballon d’Or was clearly not fit at the climax of the season at Bayern Munich, yet if he was in Brazil his reputation would doubtless insure a place in the team regardless of form or fitness.
The void of France’s star man means others now have to take responsibility. And several certainly showed they were capable of doing that in a 3-0 win over Honduras. Karim Benzema led the line superbly and after a fine season with Real Madrid his two, almost, three goals served notice that he is ready to begin putting right what is, for a player of his talents, a modest return at international level of 23 goals in 67 appearances. Meanwhile, Mathieu Valbuena was arguably the star of the show on the right. In the place vacated by Ribery, Antoine Griezmann didn’t display his full range of talents but did enough to show he, too, can make a real impact.
There is now a young core to the team, also including Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane, who have bundles of talent and who are crucially not tainted by previous ignominious failures. Having gotten off the board with three points, topping the group and avoiding a likely Round-of-16 contest against Argentina will now feature prominently in Deschamps’s thoughts.
Clearly, though, other than their over-the-top physicality, a limited Honduras side provided a kind opening match for Les Bleus. The standard will be raised in their second game against a Switzerland side also featuring an exciting crop of young players. In their opening match against Ecuador, there were first World Cup starts for Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Valentin Stocker, Josip Drmic and Ricardo Rodriguez, all aged 25 or younger. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Admir Mehmedi and 22-year-old Haris Seferovic came off the bench to score Switzerland’s goals in a 2-1 victory. It was a result that could have gone either way, with both teams having chances to win it in the dying stages. But the fact that they came out on top, together with the manner in which they did so, courtesy of Seferovic’s injury-time goal, could be huge for the belief of this raw Switzerland side.
The experience in the team comes in central midfield, where Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami patrol the ground. Against France, the Napoli duo will likely look to stop Valbuena from coming inside and having the same influence as he did against Honduras. On the right flank, Stephan Lichtsteiner provides a valuable attacking weapon, but will have to defend better against Griezmann than he did against Ecuador’s Jefferson Montero.
The key, though, should be in that central midfield zone. With Pogba alongside the almost equally dynamic Blaise Matuidi, together with the passing of Yohan Cabaye, France are a formidable prospect and should garner control allowing them to supply the talented players further forward. It has the potential to be a high quality match, but France have the edge to get a victory that will further expectations of a deep run in Brazil.
Prediction: France 2-1 Switzerland
Betting odds (boavada.lv)
France win: 5/7
Switzerland win: 15/4
When and where: The World Cup 2014 Group E match will kick off from the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador at 3 p.m. ET.