Enyeama error aids France progress
BRASILIA, Brazil -- Here are three thoughts from Nigeria's 2-0 loss to France in the World Cup round of 16.
1. France finally locate winning formula
Eventually, France arrived to a contest they were struggling to control. Nigeria's power and organisation were getting to them. Didier Deschamps, his initial selection having failed him with some ponderous play and a lack of joined-up thinking, needed to try something.
Karim Benzema had been a passenger. Out on the left, and out of the picture. The removal of Olivier Giroud was the key decision by the coach as the Arsenal striker had been ponderous, like the player he was in his first season in England. With young Antoine Griezmann substituted in for Giroud, Benzema went central. Soon, France were creating chances: Yohan Cabaye hit the bar, and then Nigeria keeper Vincent Enyeama palmed Benzema's header over the crossbar.
From the resultant corner, the previously excellent Enyeama erred badly on a Mathieu Valbuena cross. A flap of the hand only directed the ball to Paul Pogba, whose header looped into the goal. France had a lead that their play only in the last 10 minutes had deserved. At last, they had come to terms with the conditions their opponents were thriving in. Then Enyeama and Joseph Yobo gifted an own-goal clincher, and qualification was sealed.
What may lie beyond is enticing. France vs. Germany -- should Algeria be beaten -- conjures memories of classic clashes from 1982 and 1986.
Brasilia's fantastic stadium (and it should be, for $900 million) was not quite full, but it crackled. Maligned and controversial though the new building projects may be, Brazil's stadia have proved they can generate a proper atmosphere, something the architects of the Premier League's bowls might perhaps bear in mind for the future.
Local fans were firmly on the side of "Ni-ger-ia"; France are still unforgiven for knocking out Brazil in 1986 and 2006, and of course the pain of Paris 1998. Contenders for the crown are being eyed nervously and wished ill; there was genuine excitement in Brasilia when it seemed the Dutch, Brazil's conquerors in 2010, might be heading out. French fans, in pockets of blue dotted along the steep curves of the Estadio Nacional, were vocal enough, and especially when victory came into sight. This has been a World Cup for Frenchmen to fall back in love with their team after the aching pain that has followed since losing in the 2006 final.
The quarterfinal and Rio de Janeiro await Deschamps' team. Improvement is required from this disjointed performance, but France are heading into exciting territory.
2. France toil
Problems of adjustment played their part in France's difficulties getting going. Reasons probably lay in a pitch that has been cut up badly, as it hosted the fifth of its seven matches. Neither team had been allowed to train on it, as is customary on the eve of World Cup matches. Fears that the kickoff time might cause conditions to be too hot were not fully met; a fresh breeze cooled the air that was especially humid, but still France looked leggy at times.
Their passing lacked smoothness, and Benzema belied top billing with anonymity -- not that Giroud, whose touch looked especially off, was much more productive, save for a first-half waft into the stands. His removal for Griezmann at 62 minutes was inevitable.
Only then did Benzema appear, an interchange with Griezmann setting up the chance on the left channel that was stopped only by a combination of Enyeama and an unlikely last-ditch clearance from forward Victor Moses.
The locomotive-powered running of Pogba often caused problems for Nigeria, as did a right-side combination of Mathieu Debuchy and Valbuena. But in-demand Debuchy has always been more adept at forward play than defending, and the Super Eagles thought they had scored first when Emmanuel Emenike, coming in from Debuchy's flank, tapped into the net, only to be denied by officials calling offside.
The eventual winner was a strong presence from early on. A Valbuena pass was met with a snap volley from Pogba that was saved well by Enyeama. The Juventus midfielder, bound to be the subject of transfer talk as soon as the football stops in Brazil, looked to fade as France did. He alone in midfield possessed the power to make deep inroads, though he had tired in the conditions. However, following Deschamps' switch, he was on hand to supply the key goal as Enyeama flapped.
3. Super Eagles' solid future
Nigeria, in the face of tragedy at home as well as chaos in their camp, have given their best World Cup showing since 1998, when they also lost at this stage. Sixteen years ago, they were humiliated by a 4-1 defeat to Denmark, but this was a performance of far greater steel. After the rank tedium of their opener with Iran, a football-loving country has been given much to be proud of, and plenty of promise for the future, too.
Stephen Keshi's amiable leadership has granted them on-field organisation, and much might be expected for the future if he can retain this nucleus of a team. After years of failure under foreign, mercenary managers, it has taken a Nigerian to return some national pride.
Ahmed Musa both runs and shoots with fearsome power, while Emenike is an intelligent runner both with and off the ball. Hugo Lloris was sorely tested by a Musa effort just before halftime and it was the CSKA forward's pass that played in the Fenerbahce striker for his disallowed goal.
Until his late calamities, goalkeeper Enyeama had been one of the best at his position in Brazil, while Juwon Oshaniwa, who plays in Israel, looked a defender of solidity. Until he suffered what looked a suspected broken ankle from what looked a reckless Blaise Matuidi tackle, Ogenyi Onazi had been a powerhouse. Only after his departure did France look the better side.
The big names of the 1998 team, such as Taribo West and Jay Jay Okocha, have been replaced by a group that lack stars, but Nigeria's side are stocked full of quality professionals who respond well to Keshi's ideas. It is to be hoped that the turmoil or this disappointment does not halt that development.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.