France took the first step in erasing the distasteful memories of their last World Cup campaign with Karim Benzema scoring two and all-but scoring the other in a 3-0 victory over 10-man Honduras in Porto Alegre.
Four years after their players went on strike and the team exited in ignominy at the first hurdle under Raymond Domenech, France, now under Didier Deschamps, showed the potential to make a far more positive impact this time around. Still, they were given a major helping hand by a limited Honduras team whose physical approach gifted France a penalty and left them a man down right before half-time. Having already been booked, Wilson Palacios ludicrously barged into the back of Paul Pogba in the box and Benzema made no mistake from the penalty spot.
With their attempts to frustrate France diminished by their numerical disadvantage, Honduras were there for the taking in the second half. France’s second came just three minutes after the interval, and it saw the first necessary use of goal-line technology at the World Cup. Benzema’s vicious strike came back off the post and was inadvertently deflected back goalward by Honduras goalkeeper Noel Valladares. Despite his desperate attempt to claw it back, the technology decided what it was incredibly difficult for the naked eye to see and the result was effectively put beyond doubt. Real Madrid striker Benzema then added a third to put some extra shine on an ideal opening performance ahead of their remaining Group E games against Switzerland and Ecuador.
Now lacking one of their most experienced campaigners for their next match against Ecuador, Honduras have it all to do to prevent their third World Cup not going the same way of the other two and ending in a first-round exit.
As if there was any doubt before hand, Honduras’ defensive strategy was quickly established. Palacios and fellow central midfielder Luis Garrido sat just a few yards in front of Honduras’s deep-lying back four. All the play was being made by France, with the question simply a matter of whether Dider Deschamps’s side could break down their dogged opponents.
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Mathieu Valbuena’s ingenuity appeared their best avenue for trying to do so. It was the diminutive playmaker’s free-kick that led to France hitting the crossbar for the first time in the half. After the ball deflected into his path, Blaise Matuidi sent a shot goalward and Valladares reacted well to turn it onto the frame of the goal. He was well beaten later on when Antoine Griezmann, getting a start after Franck Ribery was ruled out of the World Cup through injury, crashed a header against the bar. If Griezmann was unlucky there, Benzema will feel he should have done better than clear the top of the goal with his own header from Valbuena’s cross.
As well as its defensiveness, Honduras’s approach was also characterized by its physicality. Often this overstepped the line, not least from Palacios. The Stoke City man had been booked for kicking and treading on Pogba on the ground in a coming together that could have seen both be handed red cards rather than just yellow after the France midfielder reacted by tripping Palacios.
Palacios foolishly failed to take heed of the warning. Two minutes before the interval he over-zealously knocked Pogba to the ground in the box and gave France a welcome chance to break Honduras’ resolve. Despite a prolonged wait as the players were settled down following Palacios’s dismissal, Benzema’s eyes remained focused squarely on the ball and the spot and he was rewarded by sending the keeper the wrong way.
In the second-half, France found it much easier to break through Honduras’ depleted defenses. Almost right away Yohan Cabaye’s perfect low cross found a free Benzema, whose shot would have stayed out by the most agonizing of margins had it not struck Valladares and snuck over the line. It remains to be seen whether Valladares or Benzema will eventually be awarded the goal. There was no doubt that the third goal belonged to the Frenchman. After Griezmann’s powerful drive from a well-planned corner deflected into his path, he still had much to do from a tight angle. Full on confidence, Benzema finished spectacularly with a full-blooded strike that soared into the roof of the net.
France were then happy to see out the final 18 minutes unscathed on the score sheet and on the injury front as poor challenges continued to rain in from their opponents.