One of the World Cup nations to have impressed the most in the group stages in Brazil have been France, with Didier Deschamps' side winning Group E unbeaten and receiving a favourable draw in the last 16.
A couple of weeks back, few gave them much of a thought as a World Cup challenger, with France having squeezed through to the finals after a comeback win in a UEFA zone qualifying play-off.
The injury to Franck Ribery, the decision to leave Samir Nasri out of the squad and, perhaps, less truly global stars in the squad than in previous tournaments all contributed to the feeling of France not being one of the heavyweights for Brazil 2014.
Three matches into their tournament, though, the French have quickly made viewers sit up and take notice of just how far they might go this time.
France lost key winger Franck Ribery to injury in early June, but to an extent this has perhaps liberated the rest of the attack.
Losing a player of Ribery's standing can never be classified as a "good thing," but it has certainly enabled Deschamps to switch around his attack a little, try different combinations and allow an extra, new player into the side—Antoine Griezmann being the most spectacular success in that regard.
Most pertinently of all, perhaps, it means France's previous natural attacking option of shifting the ball wide to Ribery at every opportunity has gone, forcing them to link play through other players and therefore giving them more unpredictability, more movement and more exchanges in the final third.
Can't help thinking not having Ribery is good for France.— Aleksandar Holiga (@AlexHoliga) June 20, 2014
Improvement After Qualification
France were extremely poor in South Africa 2010, finishing bottom of the group, and won only once in Euro 2012 as they reached the quarter-finals. In qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, they fairly comfortably finished second behind Spain but were anything but spectacular.
A 2-0 first-leg loss to Ukraine in the playoff saw France teeter on elimination—until a 3-0 comeback victory in the second leg.
Whether it was this series of results, the absence of Ribery or simply more time with the players which gave Deschamps the epiphany, there has been a big change since that win over Ukraine. Since the warm-up games started before the finals, France have been far more offensive-minded, play with greater pace, have better movement from midfield into the final third and above all else are far, far more relentless with their attacking instincts.
Dominating possession is all well and good, but Deschamps is making the best use of his mobile, athletic forwards to keep piling pressure on opponents, never giving them a chance to get back into the game by keeping them entirely downtrodden.
Big respect to Deschamps for publicly admitting that the WC squad were not the 23 best available players in France but they were 'his 23'— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) June 20, 2014
That's how they put eight past Jamaica and four past Norway in the warm-ups, and five past Switzerland in the group stage.
How Far Can They Go?
Looking at France's quarter of the knock-out stage, they have a real opportunity of making the final four if they maintain their form and fitness.
The aim is to go deep into the tournament, but Les Bleus will not be getting carried away. That is the message from midfielder Yohan Cabaye, per Fifa.com.
The fact we showed our quality in the group stage obviously should make us more confident but not arrogant, otherwise we are going to have major problems.
We are bidding to progress on Monday and go as far as possible but we must do that with the same mentality, determination and quality we have shown so far.
That's not to say they have a straight-forward path, but they can certainly feel confident about their chances. Nigeria, their round of 16 opponents, have been good in patches but very, very open in defence. Given France's attacking strength and movement, they have to be favourites there to at least put a couple past the Africans.
Should they negotiate that test, the assumption is that UEFA rivals Germany await. That game looks very much 50-50 at present and could well come down to who performs best on the day.
Are France capable of winning that game? Absolutely. Their defence is the match of Germany's attack, man for man, and their own midfield is as powerful and versatile as they come. It will come down to small details, concentration, opportunism and luck—at one end or the other.
To look beyond that is folly at present, but a strong South American of one description or another will await at the semi-final stage, quite possibly hosts Brazil.
It's a long route to the final for all sides involved, but France have got to be positive about their chances of making it—and certainly a lot more people will be looking at them as potential challengers in the latter stages now than a few weeks ago.
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