Why France's Draw with Ecuador Sets Up Les Bleus for World Cup Knockout Stage

Andrew Gibney@@gibney_aFeatured ColumnistJune 26, 2014

France's Karim Benzema puts his hands on his head during the group E World Cup soccer match between Ecuador and France at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Christophe Ena/Associated Press

France, in the space of two weeks, have gone from World Cup outsiders, to dark horse, to favourites. Wednesday night’s 0-0 draw with Ecuador was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Didier Deschamps’ men.

They now leave the group stage without a 100 percent record, and they are not flying into the knockout stages with everything going to plan. This sets up France’s encounter with Nigeria perfectly and will put Les Bleus in the right frame of mind for the round of 16.

Patrice Evra said it himself; the one worrying thing for France was just how well it was going. Drawing 0-0 with a team that finished third in Group E drops the expectations surrounding France's chances back down to a manageable level.

David Vincent/Associated Press

Deschamps has great control over this group of players, but he would have been slightly worried about their confidence growing too much, too soon. Any team that lifts the FIFA World Cup trophy grows into the tournament, hitting their peak at just the right time.

In 2010, Spain lost their opening game but went all the way to the final in Johannesburg. Deschamps made changes to the side against Ecuador, and he will be very happy with the contributions of Lucas Digne at left-back and Morgan Schneiderlin in the centre of midfield.

Olivier Giroud started his second game from the bench and looked lively when he came on and possibly should have scored a later header to win the game.

However, the result now means that Deschamps has learnt even more about his team. Against Nigeria in the next round, expect Giroud to start; the rest will have done the Arsenal forward good, but now he knows his place isn’t guaranteed, and he will be working his socks off to continue in the No. 9 role for the rest of the tournament.

The performances from Moussa Sissoko, Paul Pogba and Schneiderlin proved that there is not an undisputed favourite for that third midfield position, and the players, especially Pogba, need to up their game if they want to guarantee a place in the lineup.

Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

One glaring omission from the game against Ecuador was the absence of Marseille playmaker Mathieu Valbuena. If Deschamps and France didn’t know it already—which they should—then they would have realised just how important his movement, creativity and attitude is to how this French attack works. No Valbuena, no party.

Karim Benzema failed to score and is still one goal away from being the highest French goalscorer at a World Cup since Just Fontaine in 1958. He will be hungry to get back on the scoresheet on Monday afternoon. After his blistering start, he will see it as a failure if he doesn’t add to his tally in Brazil.

The draw leaves France group winners with seven points. It's the same total as Brazil, Mexico and Costa Rica, but it's behind the group-stage favourites Argentina, Netherlands and Colombia.

If France had galloped to victory by two or three goals, the stories would all have been around Les Bleus’ amazing group-stage victories and how far they would go in the tournament.

After Wednesday’s result Deschamps played down the draw when speaking to the official FIFA website, taking the clean sheet as a small victory.

We did everything we could to score, but you can’t win every match 3-0, and while I know we weren’t quite as effective as we were against Switzerland, Ecuador are a very fine side who have a lot of pace up front.

All the same, it’s good that we didn’t concede. I’m overjoyed, thrilled and very satisfied. There’s a whole new competition starting now for us. We’re going to savour the moment and then focus on Nigeria.

France are a much better side when the odds are against them. The 3-0 win over Ukraine in the play-offs was a prime example of that.

Over 80 percent of the French public had written off their team’s chances of making it to Brazil, now that they are there, and performing well, Deschamps has created a wonderful team spirit.

France simply performs better when their backs are against the wall. Once everything becomes all roses and rainbows, that’s when Les Bleus have problems.

They are still favourites to beat Nigeria for a place in the quarter-finals, but the draw will cast enough doubts that the French players won’t get too far ahead of themselves.

If France can reach the last eight, their expectations will have been reached, and anything from there is a bonus. The way this team is carrying itself, being able to play without fear or restrictions is one of the most frightening prospects of this World Cup.

France started with a bang, now they are slowly slipping back under the radar, ready to explode again in the later rounds.