France mount second-half rally to drop Nigeria, advance to quarters

France downed Nigeria 2-0 in a wide-open, run and gun game at the Mane Garrincha in Brasilia to advance to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals on Monday.

Paul Pogba scored the winner with ten minutes to go, heading home a gift from Vincent Enyeama to cap a goal made in France. The Lille keeper came way out for a corner kick, and palmed it out to his right — setting up a free header for the Juventus midfielder to cap a spell of intense French pressure. Joseph Yobo scored an own-goal in stoppage time under pressure from Antoine Griezmann to complete Nigeria’s downfall.

”We’re not the prettiest or the best, but we can do good things,” France manager Didier Deschamps said after the victory. ”The deliverance came late. There was a lot of tension because we were up against a very athletic side and there were a lot of challenges.”

”I’m proud of my players because we’re coming back from very far. I think we’ve given a lot of pleasure back to our fans,” Deschamps added. ”I think there were 5,000 here and millions back home who will feel proud.”

France will now face Germany at the Maracana on July 4. Nigeria are headed to the exit door.

MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING

It was a bitter loss for a Nigerian side that quite arguably should have been playing against ten men for a half hour or more after a vicious Blaise Matuidi tackle on Ogenyi Onazi. But there is no argument that when France finally started to move through the gears, they were by far the more insistent team, and always looked good for a goal or two.

Yet this France did not look like anywhere near the side that had ripped through Honduras and Switzerland. Then again, Nigeria are not Honduras (eliminated) or Switzerland (cannon fodder) and played a far more muscular game that looked to blunt tiny Mathieu Valbuena and keep Olivier Giroud from linking up with Karim Benzema.

That plan was tipped early in the first half when Giroud and John Obi tussled in the middle, with the Arsenal man getting a shove to the ground that signaled he would not get a clean run onto the near post. It worked. Benzema, who should have been able to take advantage of Efe Ambrose’s erratic play, was left alone out wide and starved for service.  As such, most of the efforts fell to the likes of less-clinical finishers like Mathieu Debuchy, who twice shanked his shots into the boards. Giroud and Benzema completed just one pass in the first half, a dismal tally that summed up much of France’s frustration.

The best chance of the half for France came from the magnetic Pogba, who leapt and volleyed a cross from Valbuena right at net, only to see Enyeama come up with one of the saves of the knockout round.

TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

Nigeria, in contrast, looked a bit more potent, targeting Patrice Evra and compressing Blaise Matuidi. Ahmed Musa became the pipeline and he would find Emmanuel Emenike in the 20th minute to put the ball in the net but the goal would be waved off by the linesman. Replays showed the call was marginal. Emenike would test Lloris again with a stinging shot that the keeper failed to hold — but he was saved again by the linesman’s flag.

The second-half devolved into a start-stop affair, punctuated by an ugly tackle. Matuidi was lucky to escape with a yellow after he went in studs-up on Onazi that left the midfielder writhing in pain. American referee Mark Geiger was quick to the pocket to card Matuidi, but he will regret he did not show a red once he sees the replays.

France boss Deschamps finally decided he had seen enough. He hauled off Giroud on 65 minutes, threw Benzema back into the middle of the attack and added Griezmann as his partner. It paid almost immediate dividends.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS

With the Real Madrid man running down the gut, Benzema and Griezmann played a neat one-two around the central defenders. Benzema unleashed a strike from the near right side that forced Enyeama into a game-saving stop, getting his body in front of the shot, slowing the ball down just enough to allow Moses to hack it away off his line.

Enyeama’s day was hardly over. Yohan Cabaye would then rip a shot off the underside of the Nigerian bar five minutes later, and was very unlucky not to see it carom in. Benzema was then gifted a free header as Ambrose and Yobo went to sleep, forcing the keeper to palm over — conceding the corner which led to Pogba’s goal.

Enyeama has a gift for the spectacular but the knock on him has always been that he tends to put showing off before the basics. That was in evidence on the goal, when he rashly came out to collect the ball and then flapped at it. Pogba, given an empty net and acres of space, could not but help to score.

When Valbuena crossed the ball into Griezmann in stoppage, he found three Nigerian defenders ball-watching. Yobo was helpless as the ball caromed off his shin and past Enyeama, but Griezmann would have surely scored anyway. That sloppy defending summed up the Africans’ dismal day, and they left with their heads hung low.