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Deschamps dampens down players’ talk about taking title

Nigerians strong in defence but a first quarter-final appearance seems unlikely

France coach Didier Deschamps: “My only concern is the match against Nigeria,” he said, talking down speculation about his team’s prospects of going all the way. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA.

If there was an upside for Didier Deschamps to the various disasters that had befallen the French side in the years before he took charge, it was that expectations at home had been reduced almost to nothing. Barely more than a decade ago, the team were World and European champions. More recently, just getting through a tournament without embarrassment on the pitch and humiliation off it has come to be viewed as something of a triumph.

It seems safe to assume then that the coach will have a quiet word with Bacary Sagna and Morgan Schneiderlin who were somehow cajoled after the final group game against Ecuador into suggesting that anything short of winning the title might reasonably be considered failure for “Les Bleus”.

“My only concern is the match against Nigeria, ” he insisted in public yesterday in any case, “it’s all that matters to me. It’s not the group phase, there are no more second chances. You’ve no choice, there’ll be a winner and a loser. So the frame of mind is different, it’s do or die.”

The players might have been expected to be more circumspect after a game in which the French failed to score against modest enough opponents who spent the last 40 minutes trying to secure the win they needed to stay in the tournament with just 10 men.

Consolation

Their coach took some consolation afterwards from the number of chances a weakened team had created and the Ecuadorian goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez was, to be fair, outstanding but the former France midfielder and captain is better placed than most to appreciate this his players should not be talking themselves up at this stage as title contenders.

For all of that, their goals against Honduras and especially Switzerland have, along with the more harmonious atmosphere in the camp, restored a feel-good factor to the French set up. They will start today’s second-round game against Nigeria as favourites to progress to the quarter-finals having topped their group for the first time since 1998 when, of course, they did lift the trophy.

Still, it would be at the Maracana, most likely against Germany, that we would start to see how far they really have progressed since bowing out rather tamely to Spain under Laurent Blanc in Ukraine two years ago.

Victory against Nigeria can’t be taken entirely for granted though, with Stephen Keshi’s side having had their moments through the group stage too, most notably against Argentina in the only game they lost.

Ahmed Musa’s goals ensured the game never felt entirely safe for the South Americans and there were plenty of positives in the African champions’ performance. But Keshi’s squad is short on both quality and depth, and it is hard to see them stepping up in the knockout stages. It will be interesting to see whether they try to force the pace of a game likely to be played in up to 30 degree temperatures because of the early afternoon kick off. Deschamps admitted it is something of a concern.

The Nigerians, he also acknowledged, are well organised and disciplined in defence, while showing that they have the odd goal in them (three from 26 attempts compared with France’s eight from 50 so far). However, they are worryingly thin on midfield options, and their physicality will be less of a concern to this robust French side.

All told, it would be a remarkable achievement if they can make it to the last eight for the first time.

Michael Babatunde is set to miss out with a broken wrist and so Keshi must decide whether to throw Moses straight back in or give Ejike Uzoenyi a start. Either way, containing the French as they push forward into the last third will be a major concern.

Benzema on form

Deschamps likes Olivier Giroud and has been willing in the past to switch Karim Benzema to the left in order to accommodate him but that doesn’t necessarily look the best move now that the Benzema is finally showing his best form and scoring a lot of goals.

French skipper Hugo Lloris, meanwhile, was at pains to play down his team mates’ talk of going all the way. “We’ve done some great things in the group stages and we are happy but the knockout stage is like a different competition.” A single goal can put you out, he noted, “and in just two or three passes you opponents can find themselves in front of goal.”

Let’s hope the others were taking all that in.