With its group stage slate complete following Tuesday’s anticlimactic scoreless draw against Denmark in Moscow, France can finally turn its attention to the games that really matter.
Les Bleus are among the handful of nations at any World Cup that can view the group stage as a warm-up act. Historically, they’ve taken that approach a bit too literally, with infighting, not talent, torpedoing France before the knockout rounds in 2002 and 2010.
This young and dynamic French team featuring a roster of players as gifted as any at Russia was always a safe bet to break that streak of flaming out in spectacular fashion at every other tournament. As it turned out, it took them only two games to get through.
Yet while Didier Deschamps’ squad barely broke a sweat in advancing, allowing zero goals from the run of play, they didn’t exactly look like world-beaters either.
Back when they won their lone World Cup, in 1998, Les Bleus won their first two outings by a combined score of 7-0. They met the Danes in their final group tilt that time, too, cruising to a relatively straightforward 2-1 win. Led by the midfield duo of Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane, that team seemed poised for at least a deep run. Their momentum coming out of the first round was obvious.
Two decades later, it’s hard to say with any confidence that we know more about this French team now than we did before the World Cup kicked off.
There is something to be said for winning games despite not playing to up to your potential, of course. And there have been plenty of eventual champions that have gotten off to slow starts. Four-time winner Italy is famous for it. Spain lost to Switzerland before going on to hoist the hardware in 2010. Even defending champ Germany was barely just ticking over as it entered the second phase four years ago, settling for a 2-2 draw with Ghana and a tight 1-0 win over the United States.
But if some degree of adversity can help steel a team before the more difficult challenges arrive, one has to wonder: Has this French team been tested at all? A few of the other elite teams in Russia have already rebounded from disappointment. Brazil picked up a convincing victory over Costa Rica after dropping two points to the Swiss in its opener. Spain, another one of the favorites, tied twice and still managed to win its group.
But outside of some sustained late pressure from a Peru side on the brink of elimination in last week’s 2-0 win and an 18-minute stretch when a penalty temporarily pulled Australia level in its opener, France’s first two games were as comfortable as they were unconvincing.
It was much of the same Tuesday against Denmark. The Danes actually showed pretty well, and they almost took an early lead through their best player, Christian Eriksen, only for French defender Lucas Hernandez to intervene at the last second.
Deschamps made six changes to his lineup and at times the lack of cohesion showed. Les Bleus were far from inspiring, yet the backups still dominated a good team that needed at least a point to guarantee their first knockout stage appearance in 16 years.
Eriksen and Co. kept coming even after word came though that Peru had taken a 1-0 and then 2-0 lead against the Aussies. A win would have allowed them to leapfrog the French and finish atop Group C. France still outshot Age Hareide’s side 6-2, and had over 60 percent of the possession. France keep a second consecutive clean sheet in the first scoreless affair in Russia.
Now the formalities are over. The French will face the Group D runner-up on Saturday, and whether it’s Argentina, Croatia or Nigeria, it promises to be their toughest match by far. Should they survive, it will only get trickier from there.
What sort of French performance will we see? It’s not hard to imagine Deschamps leading this team on a deep run and, with a little luck, perhaps even to glory. It’s also not hard to see them succumbing to inexperience – France is tied with England as the second-youngest team in the competition, after the Nigerians – and bombing out in their do-or-die debut.
We’ll know how good this France team really is soon enough either way.
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Uruguay storms to Group A win by dismantling Russia
• Egyptian goalkeeper sets record as oldest player to feature in World Cup
• Ronaldo pleads with noisy Iranian fans to let him sleep (video)
• Denmark fined by FIFA over sexist banner, fan behavior
• Report: Salah mulling quitting Egypt national team over controversial photo