On the deciding day of the World Cup for Group E, a resurgent French side needed only a point to top their group and avoid Argentina in the last 16. Meanwhile, Ecuador would have to beat their opponents and maintain their goal difference over Switzerland to advance to the next round. Ominously, if France were to beat Ecuador it will be only the second time they have won all of their World Cup group matches. The other occasion occurring on home soil in 1998 and ending in raucous celebrations along the Champs-Elysees.
Much of the pre-game chatter centered around tales of redemption and two strikers. Having limped through a qualifying play off against the Ukraine, even the domestic media were speculating if this was the worst French team ever. Yet, after two impressive wins over Honduras and Switzerland, a few eyebrows were suddenly being raised in French coach Didier Deschamps direction. France appeared transformed, as did the form of one of their star strikers.
Both Karim Benzema and Enner Valencia have notched three goals in the tournament so far. Benzema in particular had endured a torrid domestic season for Real Madrid amid poor displays for Les Bleus in qualification but appeared a quite different proposition in Brazil.
Ecaudor made only one change from the side that defeated Honduras, Caicedo making way for midfielder Arroyo. France, however, rang the changes following their demolition of Switzerland, with Griezmann starting in place of Giroud and Sagna, Digne and Koscielny appearing in defense. Pogma also being tapped with the task of deputizing for the suspended Cabaye in midfield.
A confident French side started off on the front foot with only Sakho providing cause for concern, an errant elbow in Enner Valencia’s direction rather fortuitously avoiding punishment. Responding to a dominant opening, Ecuador switched the dangerous Montero to the right flank with Antonio Valencia moving behind Enner Valencia. Despite the tactical switch Ecuador, and their wingers in particular, continued to struggle against a far more powerful French side. An illustrative moment of the first half saw Noboa and Matuidi clash heads with the Ecuadorian faring worse from the exchange and consequently sporting an unattractive hair net for the duration of the contest.
By the interval the Swiss were comfortably beating Honduras, leaving Ecuador at the start of the second half desperately in need of inspiration. Instead they found themselves a man down on 49 minutes when their captain Antonio Valencia recklessly brought Digne down in a dangerous challenge, thus seeing red. Bizarrely galvanized by the set back, Ecuador then fashion their best chance of the game four minutes later with Noboa, hair net and all, shooting wide with the goal at his mercy.
The rest of the second period was a previously ruthless French side squander a number of opportunities. In the latter stages, Pogma flashed a header narrowly wide from a delightful Sagna cross and both Giroud and Benzema are frustrated by the excellent Dominguez in goal. The tempo resembled a pre-season friendly so it was no surprise when the full-time whistle blew on a goalless draw.
With Switzerland prevailing comfortably against Honduras, France will join their neighbors in the next round following a pedestrian performance in their final group game. Considering what was at stake, Ecuador were surprisingly unadventurous in their approach. As a consequence, France progress despite rarely shifting out of second gear and, as such, remain something of an unknown quantity. Devastating against opposition in a weak group but as yet untested against far more illustrious opponents. As we move into the last 16, far more severe examinations await.