France moved onto the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup following a scoreless draw with 10-man Ecuador on Wednesday in Group E at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.
The result was enough to send France into the round of 16 as Group E winners with seven points, following wins in their opening two matches. Ecuador were eliminated after finishing third in the group.
France came into Wednesday's match having played some of the most exciting football of the group stage, scoring eight goals while beating Honduras and Switzerland in their first two matches. But with qualification—and first place in the group—all but assured, manager Didier Deschamps rested some key regulars against Ecuador, including playmaker Mathieu Valbuena and striker Olivier Giroud (the latter entered the match as a second-half substitute).
The result of the changes was obvious, as France were held scoreless for the first time in Brazil. But regardless of Wednesday's offensive performance, Les Bleus will enter the knockout stages as one of the teams to watch.
Up next for Deschamps' side is a match against Group F runners-up Nigeria. With a win over the African side, France could potentially face Germany in the quarter-finals—if Die Mannschaft finish first in Group G and advance past the round of 16.
Ecuador, meanwhile, are the only South American team to be knocked out in the group stage. With Switzerland defeating Honduras 3-0 in Group E's other match, La Tri needed a win to have any chance of advancing to the last 16.
Clear chances were scarce for both teams in the first half. France's Antoine Griezmann scuffed a low shot off target in the 11th minute, and Moussa Sissoko had a volley saved by Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez four minutes later.
Les Bleus' best chance of the first half came in the 38th minute, as Griezmann curled a free-kick from the left into the middle, where Paul Pogba directed a looping header on target. The attempt had little pace on it, however, and Dominguez tipped the ball over the bar.
Ecuador had an opening three minutes later, with Enner Valencia towering at the back post to nod Michael Arroyo's cross on target. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris saved low at his left-hand post, and the match went into half-time scoreless.
Griezmann came close again in the second minute of the second half after a fine, flowing move by France. After collecting Pogba's angled pass on the right, Bacary Sagna curled a first-time cross into the path of Griezmann, whose volley was saved well by Dominguez.
Ecuador went down to 10 men in the 50th minute when captain Antonio Valencia drew a red card for a poor challenge on Lucas Digne. Replays showed Valencia came over the top of the ball before raking Digne's shins with his exposed studs.
The dismissal was a clear blow to Ecuador's hopes of advancing to the knockout stage, but the South Americans created the next chance after hitting France with a counter in the 54th minute.
Enner Valencia led the move, charging down the middle toward France's box before laying off for Christian Noboa. But with a glorious chance at his feet, Noboa missed the target, shooting weakly off target.
France responded with a spell of sustained attacking. Blaise Matuidi directed a high drive straight at Dominguez in the 62nd minute, and Benzema had a shot deflected wide of the post three minutes later.
Pogba had an even bigger chance in the 73rd minute, rising unmarked at the back post to meet Sissoko's cross with a header. But the Juventus midfielder opted for power instead of placement, sending his attempt off target.
With time quickly running out, Ecuador pushed forward in search of a winner. Enner Valencia set up Renato Ibarra for a good chance inside the box in the 82nd minute, but Lloris pushed away the latter's shot to keep the match scoreless.
Space started to open up around the pitch, with France creating danger as well. Karim Benzema and Giroud combined well in the Ecuador box in the 84th minute, but Benzema's shot was parried by Dominguez. Two minutes later, substitute Loic Remy forced Dominguez into a sprawling save with a shot from the right.
As the final whistle approached, it was France—rather than Ecuador, remarkably—creating the best chances. Les Bleus came close yet again in the second minute of stoppage time as Giroud flicked a header on target. Dominguez saved again to keep his side level, but after another few scoreless minutes, La Tri found themselves out of the World Cup regardless.
Note: Player grades are based on a 1-10 scale, with 1 as the lowest rating and 10 the highest.
|Ecuador Player Ratings|
|Juan Carlos Paredes||7||7|
|Renato Ibarra (for Montero, 63')||N/A||5|
|Gabriel Achillier (for Arroyo, 82')||N/A||5|
|Felipe Caicedo (for Noboa, 89')||N/A||5|
|France Player Ratings|
|Raphael Varane (for Sakho, 61')||N/A||6|
|Olivier Giroud (for Matuidi, 67')||N/A||5|
|Loic Remy (for Griezmann, 79')||N/A||5|
France coach Didier Deschamps (via Goal.com):
We have qualified for the knockout rounds. It's all going well. Now we have five days to prepare for the last 16 game against Nigeria. We will analyse everything. Before thinking about it though, we'll enjoy qualifying for the knockout round.
We were lacking efficiency but the essentials are there. It's important that every player has rhythm," he added.
Sometimes, it's hard to win. But we had some chances. The keeper stopped some of them. Sometimes, when there are fewer opportunities, we score. That was the case on Friday (against Switzerland).
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