France have reached the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, but they needed a better-late-than-never substitution from Didier Deschamps to overcome the coach's ineffective tinkering with the starting XI.
Les Bleus eventually prevailed past a strong and motivated Nigeria side that were on the brink of their first-ever appearance in the last eight of the tournament.
However, a late header from Paul Pogba and an even later Joseph Yobo own goal clipped the wings of the Super Eagles, just when they looked set to soar.
Deschamps' 62nd-minute decision to introduce Antoine Griezmann for the ineffectual Olivier Giroud made the ultimate difference.
That was after the game turned when Blaise Matuidi received only a yellow card for a shocking tackle on Ogenyi Onazi when American referee Mark Geiger should have given him a red.
Pre-match, Deschamps was believed to be mulling over whether to start Giroud or Griezmann in the front three along with Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena.
The 45-year-old eventually opted for Giroud, but it proved to be a poor decision.
1 - There was only one pass made between Giroud and Benzema in the first hallf. Breakdown.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) June 30, 2014
The Arsenal man struggled to get into the game, failed to offer the French the same focal point that he did against Switzerland and barely posed a threat to the seemingly impenetrable Vincent Enyeama in the Nigeria goal.
Affected the most by Giroud’s vanishing act up top was Benzema—who depends upon his strike partner to roam freely—because he had to essentially play two different roles while the No. 9 was on the field.
Although the Real Madrid man’s performance did not pick up once Griezmann was introduced, substituting Giroud had a massive influence on the game.
For Deschamps, this should be a lesson learned.
The former World Cup and UEFA European Championship-winning captain made a point to his players by making a host of changes for the final Group E encounter with Ecuador.
But, as we have seen so often when this happens at a tournament like the World Cup, those changes can have a negative effect in the following match as the side struggle to rediscover their previous momentum.
Did Deschamps make an error in changing so many players for the Ecuador game? Yes. However, he had reason to, with Yohan Cabaye—restored to the starting XI to great effect at Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha—suspended and Patrice Evra one booking away from a one-match ban.
You can see why Les Bleus' tactician made those changes, but it came at the cost of France's momentum, and it almost undermined his players against a purposeful Nigeria side that were more adept at dealing with the heat in Brasilia.
One thing in particular helped the French make it through in the end, though, and it was not necessarily a piece of individual brilliance from one of the team's many talented players.
Instead, it was the fact that this group is exactly that—a team—and not just a collection of brilliant but individualistic talents.
Previous incarnations of this Tricolores side would have cracked under the pressure, many with greater collective talent than Deschamps' current group.
Certainly, had this match taken place with the team that was beaten 2-0 by Ukraine in Kiev during the qualifying play-offs, they would not have been able to withstand their thorough examination from the Nigerians.
But Les Bleus are made from stronger stuff these days.
Deschamps' men kept going—even if they were lucky still to have Matuidi on the pitch for the latter part of the second half—and they got their reward in the end.
It was not a fine performance that saw France at their flowing best but instead a gritty one that proved there is more to this squad than just one or two brilliant performances against inferior opponents.
What the coach needs to do now, regardless of the quarter-final opponent, is to stick with the same XI that finished the game in Brasilia.
Unless Mamadou Sakho is fit enough to play in Friday's visit to Estadio do Maracana, the back four should remain the same, even though Evra's position is now under intense scrutiny.
The same goes for the midfield. Moussa Sissoko can feel aggrieved to have lost his place in the side following two good showings against Switzerland and Ecuador, but Pogba demonstrated what he brings to the table against Nigeria.
Giroud, as unlucky as he is that he did not truly get his chance up top back when Benzema was suffering a 1,222-minute goal drought last year, showed why Deschamps considers him second best to the French No. 10.
Valbuena, despite struggling for form for most of the game, came up big with passes that led to both goals.
Griezmann was the catalyst for the late France onslaught, but it was the team's collective determination and will to win that saw them ultimately reach their goal.
Now, it's up to Deschamps to finally decide against fixing what is not broken.