2014 FIFA World Cup: What We Learned, Day 18
France survived a gutsy effort to down the Nigerians 2-0 and advance to the quarterfinals.
At the end of each day of action at the 2014 World Cup, our writers weigh in on what we learned from each match.
France advances, but it was hardly a simple task: France won 2-0, but that's a deceiving score line. The second goal came in stoppage time via an own goal (although Mathieu Valbuena deserves credit for putting it in the dangerous spot), and the first tally only came in the 78th minute after some tremendous back-and-forth play from both sides. Nigeria would've scored in the first half, save for a close offsides call against Emmanuel Emenike, and it was a bit too easy for the Nigerians to work the ball into France's attacking zone during a few sequences in the second.
Karim Benzema should've scored at least once, if not twice, and Olivier Giroud wasn't nearly himself, coughing up possession way too many times. Even Pogba, the first goal scorer, made a number of poor decisions with the ball before he ultimately redeemed himself with the late header. The only players who really shined were midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, who was a constant nuisance along the right flank for the Nigerians and sub F Antoine Griezmann. It will surely take the win, but Monday's performance left a lot to be desired, especially with a potential matchup against Germany looming.
Vincent Enyeama kept Nigeria in this game: Against a lesser keeper, France may have won by a score line more similar to its group-stage-whomping of Switzerland, whom it dispatched 5-2. But Vincent Enyeama firmly placed himself alongside outstanding World Cup keepers Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico and Keylor Navas of Costa Rica. He saved a one-timed Pogba rocket in the 21st minute to keep the clean sheet and then stuffed Benzema's one-on-one attempt with a sliding deflection. His lone mistake was coming off his line in the 78th-minute to capture a corner kick. The folly left his goal open with no one to protect the line and Pogba finished off the simple chance.
France needs to finish better if it wants to reach semis: With a suspect defense, the onus lies on France's strikers to stake a lead against its opponents. That didn't happen against an upstart Nigerian team, which held possession longer in the first half than Les Bleus did. Pogba missed the point-blank chance, Debuchy couldn't knock a worthwhile attempt despite a perfect pass onto his foot in the box and Benzema wasn't nearly the lethal striker he'd been in group play. Certainly some of the questionable finishing can be attributed to Enyeama, but Benzema in particular wasn't picking his corners and instead opting for shots right in the middle of the goal. Nigeria was forgiving. Potential quarterfinal opponent Germany won't be.
Germany's defense still has issues: Germany's defense was expected to be its weak point heading into the World Cup, and it's lived up (down?) to the hype. Germany has essentially been playing four centerbacks across the back line at the same time, leaving them exposed down the flanks, especially to opponents with pace. Algeria had plenty of that today, and the African side's ability to get into space on the counterattack constantly created issues. Per Mertesacker hasn't looked overly athletic at the back, while Jerome Boateng seemed unsure of himself in the middle after playing right back in the group stage. Benedikt Howedes hasn't been overly effective all World Cup. What makes this interesting is the fact Germany has one of the world's best right backs on its roster in Philipp Lahm -- but he has been playing as a holding midfielder in front of the defense. He moved to the backline for the final 45 minutes of the match on Monday, but it's unclear whether he will play there against France. Germany played a high defensive line on Monday, and its lack of pace mixed with some communication issues led to problems. If not for goalkeeper Manuel Neuer's marauding runs out of his own penalty area, Germany could have been in more trouble.
Algeria got better and better: Algeria wasn't all that aggressive in 2010, playing mostly a defensive system. In the group opener against Belgium, that's exactly what Algeria did -- putting 10 men behind the ball and absorbing pressure from the more talented European side. Since then, though, Algeria is become more open and dynamic, using their speed and counterattacking ability to create problems for opponents. Had Neuer not come out of his own area so often, Algeria would have gotten behind the Germany defense constantly. Look for Algeria in four years, too. Only one player on the team is over 30 years old, and he's 31-year old Madjid Bougherra.
Germany's frontline can't be as wasteful against France: It seems France had the same issue against Nigeria, but both teams need to be hitting on all cylinders in the quarterfinal match. Germany simply couldn't finish on Monday. The attacking band provided chances in the final third, but the last ball or attempted shot always seemed a little off. Even when there were wide-open opportunities in the box, they would go right at Rais M'Bolhi. Thomas Muller wasn't his usual clinical finishing self, while Mesut Ozil was inconsistent until his goal late in the match. Andre Schurrle provided an added dimension when he came on for Mario Gotze, getting in behind the Algeria defense with his pace. He gave Germany's attack some incisiveness and directness cutting in from the right side, and it makes sense that he scored the winner for Germany. Combine missed opportunities with a suspect defense, and Germany was nearly headed home early. That can't happen again against France.
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