By Stefan Coerts in Brasilia
Going into the game, France were widely regarded as the favourites to reach the quarter-finals at the expense of Nigeria.
Les Bleus had impressed in the group stages against Honduras and Switzerland, while the Africans had only made it to the knockout stages after a controversial win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Yet as soon as Monday’s game at the Estadio Mane Garrincha kicked off, it was clear that Didier Deschamps’ men were in for a tough afternoon.
Nigeria showed right from the off that they had no intention of letting France play the free-flowing attacking football that won them so many admirers in previous games. Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Valbuena hardly saw the ball in the opening 45 minutes, while Ahmed Musa, Peter Odemwingie and Emmanuel Emenike caused their opponents all kinds of trouble with their physicality and direct style of play.
The most interesting battle was fought out in midfield, with Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi going head to head with John Obi Mikel and Ogneyi Onazi.
There were doubts before the game as to whether the Juventus man or Newcastle United’s Moussa Sissoko would start, but Deschamps opted for Pogba in the end – and the youngster proved his boss right with a superb display.
The 21-year-old provided his back four with excellent cover when needed, made a number of important interceptions, won his fair share of his personal duels and got involved going forward whenever possible, too.
Pogba first came close in the 23rd minute after a quick one-two with Valbuena, only to see Victor Enyeama pull off a superb save to deny him.
The energetic midfielder continued to be a major threat, though, and eventually made the difference for France when he headed home into an empty net after Enyeama failed to clear a corner kick in the 79th minute.
By then, the French had seized the initiative after a difficult opening hour – and there’s no denying the introduction of Antoine Griezmann played a major role in the outcome of the game.
With Giroud up front, France looked shorn of ideas and lacked mobility, but things changed as soon as the Real Sociedad man came on. He first created a good chance for Benzema, who saw his effort saved by Enyeama, and then played a big role in the second goal as he forced Joseph Yobo into turning the ball into his own net.
France will now have to deal with either Germany or Algeria in the quarter-finals and Deschamps might very well decide to give Griezmann another chance to prove his worth right from the start in Les Bleus’ next game.
And if not, there’s always Pogba to fall back on. Earlier this year, Jose Mourinho stressed that Eden Hazard was the best young player in the world. The France fans might have another opinion about that, however. At the tender age of 21, Pogba is already taking the national side by the scruff of the neck. And there’s only more to come.
By Stefan Coerts in Brasilia