A smashing win over Honduras had France admirers salivating, but there is still room for improvement ahead of their next game.
France got their FIFA World Cup campaign underway In Porto Alegre with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Group E rivals Honduras last Sunday. Karim Benzema hit the ground running in Brazil – scoring twice and being heavily involved in the third – as Les Bleus recorded their first opening victory in the tournament since 1998’s success on home soil.
A lot has changed for the French in the 16 years since coach Didier Deschamps hoisted the World Cup Trophy aloft to the jubilation of the Stade de France crowd after a 3-0 win over Brazil, but most of it for the worst.
Aside from reaching the final in Germany back in 2006, controversy-ridden campaigns in 2002 and 2010 seriously damaged the French public’s support for their team. However, the 3-0 victory over Honduras – admittedly hardly a footballing superpower – suggests that France are finally ready to focus on what is happening on the pitch, rather than being preoccupied by events off of it.
The determination and focus of Deschamps’ side to make a fast start to their campaign was evident almost immediately at Estadio Beira-Rio.
Prior to Benzema’s opener on the stroke of half time – a well-taken penalty after Honduras’ Wilson Palacios had been dismissed for a second bookable offence – Les Tricolores had hit the crossbar on multiple occasions and had created plenty of good chances.
"We were patient,” Deschamps told the media in his post-match interview. “We had chances, hitting the woodwork twice in the first half. It's a great start. It's never easy to win 3-0 in the World Cup, but we did it. The joy is all encompassing in football when you win. Congratulations to the lads."
A number of players performed well on the night in southern Brazil – with Mathieu Valbuena, Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye and Antoine Griezmann all looking impressive – but nobody rose to the occasion quite as well as Benzema.
Prior to the game, many – including myself – questioned the Real Madrid man over his ability to really deliver on the biggest stage. The 26-year-old answered emphatically, with a double on his World Cup debut.
Benzema’s brace makes him only the third Frenchman to have scored twice in a match at the tournament, joining legendary French forward Just Fontaine as one of three players to have scored two or more goals on their World Cup debut for Les Bleus.
Can he emulate Fontaine’s incredible 13-goal haul from 1958 edition? It is a tall order, but the former Olympique Lyonnais man finally appears ready to embrace his role as the talisman of Deschamps’ France side.
"I was focused on having a good match and on winning by playing my football without pressure, and I managed to do that tonight,” Benzema told the media after the game. “I'm very happy and very proud. But the most important thing was that we got the win. Some people judge me on the number of goals I score but for me, the way I play counts for a lot."
Benzema is certainly playing without fear at present and he oozed confidence after he scored the opener against Honduras. However, the French No. 10 was only able to excel because of a number of mature performances put in by his teammates.
Deschamps’ men displayed patience and purpose from the off, while there was a genuine sense of team spirit in their opener. They eventually broke down Los Catrachos after a feisty first 45 minutes, with the CONCACAF representatives after they quickly resorted to strong-arm tactics.
Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Cabaye recognised France’s need to secure a maximum points haul in their opening game and feels that the result sets the tone for this summer’s tournament.
"Winning our first match like that was great for our morale and holds us in good stead for the rest of the tournament,” the 28-year-old said post-match. ”We'll see in time how far we can go. We showed some great stuff tonight, even when it was still 11 against 11, when we hit the woodwork twice."
Despite the major positives in a first opening victory since a 3-0 win over South Africa in Marseille back in 1998, there are still a few areas in which Les Bleus must improve ahead of what promises to be a tougher game against Switzerland in Salvador on Friday.
There are still question marks over the central defensive partnership of Mamadou Sakho and Raphael Varane. They were caught out once or twice without being punished by an anaemic Honduran attack.
Both players are unquestionably top defensive talents and will be a future central defensive pairing – likely at the European Championship of 2016 on home soil – but their lack of collective experience is a worry. With both young and relatively inexperienced, they occasionally look hesitant and unsure of themselves when on the ball.
Although not necessarily a more accomplished player than either Sakho or Varane, Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny does have age on his side. As the eldest central defensive option available to Deschamps, pairing him with either Sakho or Varane – likely the former – could provide a more balanced defence against a dangerous Swiss attack.
However, the flipside is that this World Cup provides the pair with the perfect chance to grow familiar with each other’s styles ahead of the Euros and they did still manage to keep a clean sheet against Honduras.
The other slight concern is Paul Pogba’s maturity – or lack of it – after he was lucky not to have been dismissed by Brazilian referee Sandro Meira Ricci for kicking out at Honduras’ Palacios. The Stoke City man seemed intent on getting himself sent off, but although Pogba’s angry reaction was understandable and should not be blown out of proportion, he also must work to keep his emotions in check.
Aside from those minor issues on the night, it was a perfect opening performance from France.
Indeed, the biggest gripe for the French is that neither team’s national anthem was played before the match. According to Liverpool defender Sakho, it showed “a lack of respect” towards the pair from the host nation.
"It's a shame. It has left a bitter taste in my mouth," the 24-year-old French vice captain revealed post-match. "Afterwards, I was told that there had been a power shortage, but I think it's a lack of respect. If it had been Brazil, as they're at home, they would have found a solution. It is, after all, a source of pride to be able to sing the national anthem. But the fans made up for it by singing it instead.”
France’s clinical performance means that they can afford to criticise the lack of organisation off the pitch for now. However, Deschamps will not let his players dwell on it for too long, with a crucial encounter against Switzerland fast approaching.
Although there are plenty more positives to take from the result than negatives, the French tactician will be keen to emphasise to his players that the hard work in Group E is not done yet. The Swiss and their wily coach Ottmar Hitzfeld will pose a significant threat to Les Bleus and Deschamps will not have ignored the minor issues raised during the Honduras encounter.
By Jonathan Johnson (@Jon_LeGossip)