France top of the class but could do better
Scoreless draw against Ecuador enough to top Group F but performance lacked intensity
The first two weeks of the World Cup has been dominated by the Latin American teams but last night France helped dispatch Ecuador from the tournament with a 0-0 in Rio’s Maracanã stadium and provided further evidence that the remaining Europeans will have a say in the title’s destiny yet.
Didier Deschamps made six changes from the team that steamrolled Switzerland but the already qualified French were still strong enough to deny their opponents the win they desperately needed, extracting a modicum of revenge for the humiliations heaped on the Old Continent earlier in the week with Ecuador becoming the only team from South America not to progress to the knockout stages.
Only Mamadou Sakho retained his place in the French back four but it still shut out an Ecuadorean team that became more and more desperate for goals as the night unfolded. True, the prolific French attack of the first two games failed to score - a combination of sloppiness in front of goal and a eye-catching performance by Ecuador’s goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez.
It was perhaps unsurprising given the number of changes that the French line-up was sapped of some of the fluidity that had so impressed in the first two games. With classification already secured there was also less of the blistering urgency evident against Honduras and Switzerland.
But the French were still the better team in a lively first half.
Ecuador had hoped that a point would be enough but an early Swiss goal in the group’s other game meant they needed to win. They tried gamely - Antonio Valencia sending Michael Arroyo free on the left with Hugo Lloris gathering his shot - before news of a second Swiss goal filtered through.
That did not deter the large Ecuadorean support which responded with a chorus of ‘Sí se puede’ - Yes we can. But a scuffed shot from Christhian Noboa and a backpost header from the eager Enner Valencia that Hugo Lloris eventually gathered was the best they could produce.
The rejigged French were looking the more dangerous. Asked to play off Karim Benzema, Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann showed some classy early touches and had an early shot hit the side netting.
The best chance of the half came towards the end and was French. Full back Juan Paredes tumbled over his adventurous opposite number Lucas Digne by the corner flag. From his free kick Paul Pogba had a header tipped over by Dominguez.
The French took up immediately from where they left off after the interval, Griezmann unlucky to see his flick at a Bacary Sagna cross come back off the crossbar the closet to breaking the deadlock either team came all night.
Ecuador’s task became all but impossible when their captain Antonio Valencia was shown a straight red for planting his studs on Digne in what was, considering the task his team faced, a rash dive for a 50-50 ball.
The remaining ten men in yellow plugged away but lacked the numbers and most crucially the quality to properly trouble the French.
Benzema seemed determined to use his time on the pitch to score the goal that would see him re-join the leaders in the race for the golden boot award but was denied several times by Dominguez.
A third Swiss goal meant Ecuador’s stay in the competition was all but over. But though the ten men needed two goals in the final minutes their support roared them on, the Sí se puedes becoming louder the more misplaced the belief seemed. There were several breaks with Enner rolling a pass into the path of Noboa but he could not get his shot on target. Then Montero broke through shortly afterwards but ran the ball out before he could get a shot away.
The late, last charge was valiant but doomed. A South American team is going home.