Helped by a much-needed substitution, France finally found their feet and made late pressure tell to move into the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup with a 2-0 win over Nigeria in Brasilia.
A France performance that failed to hit the heights of their early displays in Brazil, coupled with some stern resistance from Nigeria, left the contest goalless going into the final stages of regulation time. But a man who so often came to Nigeria’s rescue in this game and in this tournament made a crucial error when Vicent Enyeama came and got only the merest of touches to a Mathieu Valbuena corner, allowing Paul Pogba to head into an unguarded net with 11 minutes remaining. With Nigeria having nothing left to offer, more slack defending led to an own goal from Joseph Yobo in injury time to secure France’s progress.
After scoring eight goals in their first two games at this World Cup to raise expectations of a deep run, France created precious little until late on. Deschamps’ decision to go with Olivier Giroud as the center-forward and their star man in the competition to date, Karim Benzema, wide on the left, failed to work as planned. Nigeria’s defense shackled the pair and exposed the gaps left by Benzema’s failure to track back. It wasn’t until Antoine Griezmann replaced the misfiring Giroud that France carried a regular threat. Having already had a notable escape when Yohan Cabaye hit a shot against the underside of the crossbar, Nigeria were finally sunk.
Despite the way they crumbled to defeat in the closing stages, it was a credible showing from the African champions in Brazil. And coach Stephen Keshi has the right to feel somewhat aggrieved at his side’s exit. France midfielder Blaise Matuidi was extremely fortunate not to see a red card for an ugly, if unintentional, challenge to the left ankle of Ogenyi Onazi that left the Nigeria midfielder being carried off on a stretcher. Still, no one could complain that the side with more quality had not come out on top. More will likely be required going forward from France, though, with Germany heavily favored to beat Algeria and secure a meeting with their European neighbors in the last eight.
The shape France began with had worked to spectacular effect in a 5-2 win over Switzerland in the group stage, but Nigeria were not nearly as open as the Swiss. While Benzema unable to get into the game in an unfamiliar position, Giroud was badly off color. A shot blazed over from the edge of the box was the closest the Arsenal striker came to making an impact.
Nigeria were also trying to capitalize on France’s lineup at the other end. The vast majority of their attacks went down France’s left side, where Patrice Evra was repeatedly left outnumbered. Peter Odemwingie, Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa all drifted over to that side on occasion, but lacked the quality to punish the French.
The attacks France did muster came also down their right side, with Valbuena the most dangerous player. A cross from the Marseille man led to Pogba blasting a volley at goal that Enyeama blocked away, before Valbuena’s pull back saw Mathieu Debuchy skew an inviting opportunity wide of the post.
A tricky situation at half time should have been made even more precarious for France early in the second half, but Matuidi escaped sanction for his reckless challenge. Instead, minutes later Deschamps finally made the required switch with Griezmann replacing Giroud. The improvement was swift. Benzema came alive and had his first chance to add to his three goals in this World Cup after a stylish one-two with Griezmann that took a fine save from Enyeama and a clearance off the line from Moses to fail to yield a breakthrough.
The pressure kept coming on the Nigeria goal. The signs of Nigeria’s struggles from set-pieces were there when a corner led to Benzema’s cross requiring a desperate clearance before Cabaye hit a shot from the top corner of the box that appeared destined for the top corner but instead came don off the crossbar and down the wrong side of the line.
There was no escape for Nigeria from the next corner. Only Enyeama will know why he decided to come so far off his line to try and collect the ball. His defense admittedly did him no favors, as Pogba was allowed the space to head home. Lacking the urgency to produce a response, Nigeria then switched off from a short corner in the first minute of injury time, allowing Valbuena to put in a low cross that Yobo turned past his own goalkeeper as he fought to deny Griezmann the finish.