5 Defining Moments in France's 2014 World Cup Campaign

Jonathan Johnson@@Jon_LeGossipFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2014

5 Defining Moments in France's 2014 World Cup Campaign

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    With France’s FIFA World Cup campaign now consigned to memory, coach Didier Deschamps and his players can reflect on their progress and be happy with their efforts.

    Les Bleus managed to reach the quarter-finals—their aim pre-tournament—and won some admirers along the way because of their entertaining and attractive style of play.

    Although the defeat to the Germans in the last eight was disappointing because of the manner of the loss, the French should feel satisfied with their close-run encounter after seeing how Joachim Low’s men destroyed Brazil. That itself is encouraging heading toward the 2016 UEFA European Championship on home soil.

    Overall, France’s South American sojourn went very well and the sense of optimism that surrounded the team pre-tournament still exists after their exit.

    Here are the five defining moments in Les Bleus’ run to the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals.

5. Benzema-Inspired Opening Win vs. Honduras

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    Prior to France’s opening Group E clash against Honduras in Porto Alegre, few knew what to really expect from Deschamps’ men. Yes, they were predicted to win their group easily, but so much was resting on the team’s opening performance, as it was expected to set the tone for the remainder of the tournament.

    The French blew away Los Catrachos 3-0, with Karim Benzema rising to the occasion by scoring twice and being involved in the third—a Noel Valladares’ own goal—that required the use of goal-line technology for the first time at a World Cup.

    Les Bleus’ commanding win saw them maintain the momentum that they had built up pre-tournament, and the victory boosted their confidence ahead of the big Group E clash against Switzerland.

4. France Maul Switzerland

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    Coming into the clash, France were riding the crest of a wave after beating Honduras and being touted as one of the dark horses for the World Cup title. By half-time, with Deschamps’ men 3-0 up against a shell-shocked Switzerland side in Salvador, Les Bleus had transformed themselves into one of the tournament favourites.

    It would get better for the French, scoring twice in the second half to lead 5-0 after 73 minutes, before the Swiss managed to claw back two late goals.

    Olivier Giroud, Blaise Matuidi, Mathieu Valbuena, Karim Benzema and Moussa Sissoko got the goals, but it was Real Madrid man Benzema who was the star once again. The 26-year-old scored once and laid on another two, taking his total for the first two games to three goals and three assists.

    At this point, it looked as if the France No. 10 would go on to be a Player of the Tournament contender.

3. Deschamps Rings Changes vs. Ecuador

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    Following such a comprehensive victory over Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Switzerland side, confidence was sky-high in the French camp, and there was even talk of Les Bleus going on to win the World Cup back home and in Brazil.

    Deschamps sought to put a stop to any potential complacency by making a host of changes to keep his players on their toes.

    In the final Group E clash against Ecuador in Rio de Janeiro, the 45-year-old rested a number of first-team players and arguably committed the first of a small number of errors that he was guilty of in South America.

    Instead of resting the key players in the squad—those who arguably needed the break more than anybody else—Deschamps opted to rotate the players around them instead. Mamadou Sakho, Raphael Varane, Matuidi and Benzema were kept in the side while everybody else was given a breather.

    The result was a disjointed performance, a goalless draw, and—worst of all—an injury to influential vice-captain Sakho that would go on to rule him out of the following game. It also saw Benzema’s momentum thrown and Matuidi pushed to play in an unnecessary game after a gruelling domestic season with Paris Saint-Germain.

    All of those decisions would go on to affect France in the latter stages.

2. Matuidi Escapes Red Card vs. Nigeria

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    France’s 0-0 draw with Ecuador meant top spot in Group E for Les Bleus and, with that, a date against Group F runners-up Nigeria in Brasilia.

    Deschamps had managed to keep most of his players fresh for the game with the changes made against Ecuador, but Sakho was unavailable because of the injury sustained in that draw.

    The French reverted to the same side that thrashed Switzerland 5-2, with the exception of Sakho, who was ruled out, and Sissoko, who was replaced by Paul Pogba. The result was another largely below-par showing from Deschamps’ side.

    Arguably, the turning point in the match was referee Mark Geiger’s decision to not show Matuidi a red card for his reckless challenge on Ogenyi Onazi in the second half. France maintaining their 11 men—combined with the introduction of the vibrant Antoine Griezmann—saw Les Bleus’ quality ultimately shine through.

    Pogba’s late header and an even later own goal by Nigerian captain Joseph Yobo ensured Deschamps’ men claimed a 2-0 win to set up a last-eight clash with Germany.

1. Deschamps Freezes vs. Germany

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    Into the quarter-finals with the pressure off after achieving their overall pre-World Cup aim, France were expected to show no fear against Germany upon their return to Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

    Sakho returned to the side after missing the Nigeria clash through injury, but fatigue told as Les Bleus succumbed to a narrow 1-0 defeat in the heat. Key players Varane, Sakho, Matuidi and Benzema—all not rested for the Ecuador clash—were among the most tired by the end of the game.

    Deschamps froze when faced with the tactical nous of opposite number Low, and his hesitance—combined with the collective inexperience of the French team—cost France the chance to turn the match around.

    Overall, it was an excellent tournament with a satisfying last-eight finish, but the manner of the exit left many with a sense of what might have been.