Dion Fanning: Rebuilt France still haven't shown what they can do
Perhaps the strangest aspect of France’s exhilarating World Cup so far is that it is exactly as many in the country predicted.
France needed a point to top the group against Ecuador in Rio and they claimed it during a dull scoreless draw at the Maracana which was notable for the bravery and heart of their opponents who played most of the second half with 10 men.
France looked uninterested, their work had been done in the first two games and they were happy to let Ecuador make the effort. This looked like the France of old and they haven’t looked like that in some time.
When France were 2-0 down after the first leg of their World Cup play-off against Ukraine last November, they were expected to continue nothing except the country’s poor relationship with the World Cup. Some wondered if this was the worst French side in history.
Didier Deschamps had rebuilt after the mutiny of Knysna 2010 but the first leg defeat had appeared to have brought his fine work - they finished behind Spain in their qualifying group - to an end.
Instead the second leg was triumph as France won 3-0, the side were applauded for their passion and hope lived. ‘Rio, Bravo,’ as Liberation’s headline put it.
Last month, the bus which had carried the mutineers in South Africa four years ago was destroyed, either in a symbolic gesture or a p.r. stunt depending on your point of view.
France arrived in Rio this week for Wednesday’s game against Ecuador with the hope sustained through their first two games. Victory in their final group match would be the first time since 1998 that they had won all three games but more important was the sense that this was a team with a purpose.
They had beaten Honduras comfortably but the game, and their five goals, against Switzerland was when France insisted on being taken seriously.
Karim Benzema wasn't a part of the squad four years ago and he didn’t score a goal for France from June 2012 to October 2013, just before the play-off against Ukraine.
He scored twice against Honduras and brought his total to three against Switzerland.
At the Maracana he looked like the man from that long drought.
He seemed to be a man saving himself for more important challenges but occasionally he’d lift himself before retreating and he had France’s best chance when he shot straight at Alexander Dominguez in the final minutes.
Deschamps, too, has appeared vindicated for insisting that squad harmony was more important than the talents of players like Samir Nasri. "My job is to make sure that nobody can endanger the balance of the group," he said and the group has responded to him.
He made six changes from the team that beat Switzerland for the game against Ecuador. One was the recall of Antoine Griezmann who had played well in the opening game and showed again in the Maracana why Deschamps might not leave him out again.
It would have taken some freak results to deny France qualification and the place at the top of the group but the point ensure they would stay away from Argentina in the last sixteen
Their confidence was obvious in the opening minutes as they opened up Ecuador with swift one-touch passing that was perhaps the greatest endorsement of Deschamps’ emphasis on the group.
There isn’t a team in the competition which doesn’t look vulnerable in defence and France are no exception. It didn’t help that three of the back four had been replaced from the Swiss game but Ecuador troubled them with their pace and Enner Valencia could have put them ahead with a header just before half-time.
The second half had more purpose with Griezmann drawing a save from Dominguez who shoved the ball onto the post. Dominguez was one of many Ecuador players who could end the night feeling proud.
Ecuador needed to win to qualify but when Antonio Valencia was sent off for a careless challenge which left Lucas Digne needing treatment, it seemed unlikely. But they showed the value in having something to play for and Cristhian Noboa should have scored when he drifted wide of the defence but shot into the side-netting.
France began to assert themselves with Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi displaying their strength in midfield even if the touch of Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Valbuena were missing.
Even without them, they could create chances against an increasingly desperate Ecuador but the slick passing of the opening minutes had disappeared.
Ecuador’s desperation saw them breaking forward and substitute Alex Ibarra should have scored but shot straight at Hugo Lloris
Their supporters chanted ‘Si se puede’ - Yes, we can - and the ten men made France - or at least this France - look vulnerable.
Deschamps’ team will be back in Rio next Friday if they can get past Nigeria in Brasilia on Monday. Then France will have to demonstrate exactly what they can do.