No more second chances, no more room for error. The knockout phase of the 2014 World Cup has begun, and no matter how well you played to get here, it can all disappear in an instant. France play Nigeria on Monday; they will start favourites to advance to the quarter-finals, but nothing is guaranteed.
Over the opening three games, Nigeria won by a single goal against Bosnia and Herzegovina, drew with Iran and lost 3-2 to Argentina.
What Didier Deschamps will have found from his research is a side that is set up perfectly for how France will want to play the game, and although it is right to be cautious, this Super Eagles side is the perfect opponent for France in the round of 16.
Watching their 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina last week revealed a few elements of Nigeria’s game. They will attack: With the pace of Ahmed Musa and Victor Moses, the power of Emmanuel Emenike and the guile and experience of Peter Odemwingie, this is a team that won’t sit back and defend.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran would have posed much different threats for Les Bleus. There is nothing more frustrating for a side like France than having to break down 10 men behind the ball inviting you on to them, without giving you much room to manoeuvre.
Against Honduras, France struggled to break down a tough and well-organised defence. Only a penalty late in the first half opened up the doors. It could have been a much tougher night if the Brazilian referee hadn’t awarded the spot-kick.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran would have employed similar tactics on Monday, but Nigeria are not just going to sit and play possum. With the players they have in the team, it just doesn’t seem like it would even be possible if they wanted to.
Defensively, the Nigerians have looked shaky at best. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama—someone the French team will know all about from his amazing season with Lille OSC in Ligue 1—has enjoyed a busy tournament.
According to the official FIFA stats, so far he has made 17 saves, with the tournament average being nine. In all other categories—attempted clearances, completed clearances, tackles, tackles won and tackles lost—Nigeria have had to perform higher than average.
One of the reasons that they have to defend so often is because they love to attack. They will continually burst down the wings, looking to feed either Emenike or Odemwingie. They are not going to sit back and defend; they are going to take the game to France.
Looking again at the official stats, Nigeria have had 42 shot attempts, with 35 being the tournament average. They have made a high number of deliveries into the box and completed numbers higher than average in both crosses and crosses completed.
This will be a great test for the France back four, but it will always open up opportunities.
What France have proven so far is their ability to break at pace on the counter-attack. The movement of Karim Benzema, Mathieu Valbuena and Olivier Giroud against Switzerland, and in the warm-up game against Jamaica, was dazzling to watch.
The speed and intelligence of the front trio, even if it includes Real Sociedad winger Antoine Griezmann, has been phenomenal. You then have the midfield runs of Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba and Yohan Cabaye to track and defend.
Any team that wants to play an open game against France could be in for a torrid time if Les Bleus are feeling good and playing freely on the day.
Nigeria, naturally, will play their same open style and look to attack down the flanks. This will give France the little bit of space they need to play their natural game and try to exploit the less-than-impressive Nigerian defence.
This is not a prediction that France will automatically win the game; there are no guarantees in football, and although France start as favourites, Nigeria have players all over the pitch who can cause this side problems.
What it means is that France will have the opportunity to play their brand of exciting, expansive football, the style that helped them beat Ukraine in the play-offs and get them to the round of 16.
Speaking to the FIFA website, Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny is aware of the dangers of getting carried away with their performances. Only seven months have passed since they were 2-0 down to Ukraine.
The first objective was to get through the group phase. Now it's to go as far as possible. We are competitors and we are ambitious, but we know that we have opponents against us and that we might lose. We're aware of our qualities. Something changed after the Ukraine game, but anything is possible in a knockout match and for the moment we're only focusing on the last 16.
Some of the pressure that surrounded this French side has gone. They have avoided the dreaded group-stage elimination, and now there is a chance they could go far in this competition.
However, as Koscielny was keen to add, anything is possible, and for France that could mean success or failure.
They have been drawn against a team that suits their style of play, it is now up to the players to put in a performance and book their place in the quarter-finals.
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