BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil, (Reuters) – France have come full circle from their debacle of four years ago to set up a World Cup quarter-final against Germany but they must hone their attacking skills to threaten the three-time champions.
The French have fully restored their image after the players’ mutiny in South Africa that was accompanied by an embarrassing first-round exit but their laboured 2-0 win over Nigeria on Monday showed they still have work to do up front.
Les Bleus controlled the tempo but had to wait 79 minutes before finally cracking open a tight Nigeria defence.
“We played a good match but there is still room for improvement,” said winger Antoine Griezmann, whose introduction on the hour was credited with sparking the French revival.
“I have said it many times already. Whenever the coach gives me a chance I will try to make the most of it.”
No doubt, coach Didier Deschamps will be using the gifted 23-year-old winger soon again with the former World Cup winners back among the world’s elite.
If there was one game at this World Cup, however, where France really seemed to miss the injured Franck Ribery it was the game against the African champions.
Olivier Giroud was given lots of credit for doing the ugly work in the centre of attack, maintaining possession and winning the high balls against the Nigeria defenders.
But it was the absent Ribery’s darting runs, quick dribbling and superb cutbacks that they needed most and only the introduction of the speedy young Griezmann turned the tide.
His presence allowed Karim Benzema to move back into his favoured central role, leaving Griezmann to trouble the Nigerians down the wing.
“I could have gone with that option from the start and maybe it would have worked and maybe it wouldn’t,” said Deschamps.
“Instead, I decided to have a target man in the middle, with Olivier Giroud fighting for balls in the air against their defence.”
They could use more of that pace when they face Germany on Friday at the Maracana and they could not have landed more appropriate opponents, who needed extra time to edge past Algeria 2-1, to unfold their full attacking qualities.
The Germany defence is slow and error-prone and their fullbacks – Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Hoewedes – are more usually deployed as centre backs.
This will give Mathieu Valbuena and, potentially, Griezmann an advantage on the wings, allowing more balls to land in the Germans’ box, something that proved tricky for Joachim Loew’s team against Nigeria for long stretches.
Germany’s speed and quick passing game may be a threat but it will also stretch the play, giving Benzema and company the space to run their own fast breaks instead of slamming into a crowded defence as they often did against Nigeria.
“We are proud to have qualified, and we hope more will follow,” the diminutive Valbuena told reporters. “There are not many people who could have predicted our run here.
“This is a great group, who live well together and want to go all the way. We want to keep winning.”
With unity now fully restored in the team, the French can focus on reclaiming success on the pitch and there is no better occasion to achieve it than against the Germans – the ultimate tournament team – in a World Cup knockout match.