If you’re planning to go on a long journey, it’s wise to have plenty of gas in the tank. And the way Didier Deschamps has been conserving fuel is just one reason to believe that France have got a lot of road still in front of them at this 2014 World Cup.
After convincingly winning the opening group games against Honduras (3-0) and Switzerland (5-2), coach Deschamps knew a tie against Ecuador in the Maracana Stadium last Wednesday would be more than enough to guarantee top place and a likely tie against Nigeria rather than Argentina.
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So he sent out a much-changed team, rotating and refreshing his men, leaving out of his starting lineup the likes of fullbacks Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra, defender Raphael Varane and midfielder Mathieu Valbuena. In addition to all this fuel-saving, Yohan Cabaye, who had already done 155 minutes on the field, was suspended for the concluding group game.
Striker Olivier Giroud came on only as a substitute, as did Varane after the outstanding Mamadou Sakho developed hamstring trouble, and France ended up having much the better of a scoreless game with Giroud missing an excellent late chance to maintain their 100 percent record.
The possible loss of Sakho for the upcoming Nigeria game is a worry, especially as alternative centerback Laurent Koscielny has been suffering from an Achilles-tendon problem. Deschamps could give a first tournament outing to Porto’s coveted Eliaquim Mangala. He’s 23 and, with the 21-year old Varane, would form an unusually young central defensive partnership, even if Varane has already emphasized his class at the tournament.
But everything else about physical condition of the French should be ideal as they strive to get past the Nigerians — lively in losing 3-2 to Argentina last time out, but clearly more beatable than any team featuring Lionel Messi — and head south from Brasilia to a possible quarterfinal against Germany in the Maracana.
What Deschamps has been able to do is take advantage of having been drawn in a relatively straightforward group. He’s very carefully managed his resources. Even midfielder Paul Pogba, who did the full 90 minutes against Nigeria, had served only a total of 55 minutes during the earlier two games.
The figures are interesting. Of the outfield who might conceivably face Stephen Keshi’s Nigerians in the Round of 16, only Karim Benzema has put in a full 270 minutes in the campaign so far. The average minutes of rest per player is 80 — or nearly a full game. It’s squad management of kind other coaches must envy, for soccer is increasingly seen by the fraternity as a game of narrow margins in which every edge potentially counts — and the science is carefully monitored.
Deschamps’s men may need all the freshness in those legs to see off the Nigerians and their enterprising attack. But France are rightly seen as firm favorites to progress and evoke memories of the great days when, with Deschamps as captain, they ruled the game much as Spain did until two Wednesdays ago, when Chile ended a sequence of success spanning two European Championship and a World Cup.
For Deschamps and France it began in 1998. They were not widely tipped to win the tournament, even though it was on the home soil they had trodden to such good effect in winning the 1984 European Championship, with Michel Platini to the fore. Pessisim grew when Zinedine Zidane was red-carded in a group game against Saudi Arabia and in the second round almost 120 minutes had passed when Laurent Blanc got the only goal against Paraguay. Then penalties were needed against Italy, and even semifinal victory over Croatia left little general Deschamps and his troops looking second best to the Brazil of Ronaldo who they would meet in the climax at the Stade de France.
But Ronaldo became ill and, whatever he had, the rest of the team appeared to catch as France swept to a 3-0 victory. From then they proved unstoppable, proceeding to win the 2000 European title in more style, but as leading players such as Patrick Vieira were phased out their replacements were of a different character and France became more known for protest and division at tournaments than their former achievement.
By the looks of things, Deschamps has rolled back the years. There is, as yet, not player of the class of Zidane, Vieira or Thierry Henry — but Benzema has potential and Varane could be better than Blanc and, as a squad, they could be as solid as the old guard if the current atmosphere survives. And no one knows the link between teamwork and medals better than Deschamps, for the medals are there on his chest.