Changes stifle French momentum
France's 0-0 draw with Ecuador was enough to secure them top spot in FIFA World Cup Group E, and Didier Deschamps' men advance to the last 16, where they will now face Nigeria.
After the excitement of the two opening matches, Les Bleus were frustrated by their South American opponents at Estadio do Maracana and they failed to live up to their free-scoring form from the first two games.
The result provides something of a reality check for the French after they became overnight contenders for the title in Brazil, and Deschamps will be pleased that his side were given such a difficult test by Reinaldo Rueda's Ecuadorian side.
However, the 45-year-old's decision to make six changes to the team that beat Switzerland 5-2 in the last round of games raised questions before the match.
Following the goalless draw in Rio de Janeiro, it is clear that most of those changes did not work, and certainly the combination of all six disrupted France's previously impressive momentum.
Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Lucas Digne, Morgan Schneiderlin, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann all came in, with Mathieu Debuchy, Raphael Varane, Patrice Evra, Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Valbeuna and Olivier Giroud all making way.
But the changes did not bring the same positive effect that they had against Switzerland.
Deschamps' alterations, although designed to reinvigorate the players and rest some of his key men ahead of the start of the round of 16 games, took a lot of vital qualities out of the team. They also tampered with the front three who had been working fantastically up until this point.
Diminutive creator Mathieu Valbuena was the most sorely missed as, once again, France struggled to break through -- as they had against Paraguay in a warmup fixture prior to the tournament -- and Les Bleus looked a shadow of themselves from their incendiary early tournament form. There can be no doubt that the Olympique de Marseille's Valbuena is the key to this France side after witnessing a performance like this, with Deschamps' team missing the guile that the 29-year-old offers on the right of the front three.
It was also the first time since the former World Cup and European Championship winner took over as France coach back in 2012 that Valbuena had been left out, having featured in every single one of Deschamps' games in charge.
Olivier Giroud's absence was also felt keenly; the team lacked the focal point that he had given them so brilliantly against Switzerland and the Arsenal man being dropped meant that the main goal-scoring burden passed to Karim Benzema. The Real Madrid man's hot form in front of goal disappeared as Les Bleus struggled to create any real clear-cut chances in the first half.
But the bigger absence still -- more so perhaps than Valbuena or Giroud -- was Cabaye in midfield. Of all of the changes made by Deschamps pregame, that was the one that was unavoidable because of the Paris Saint-Germain man's suspension. Although Morgan Schneiderlin enjoyed a fairly solid full France debut, Cabaye's absence was clear for all to see, and his metronomic control over the ball mean that the French were not in as strong a command of possession.
Overall though, it was a good result and could benefit France in the long run. The team are into the round of 16 and finished top Group E, meaning that they got the more favourable draw against Nigeria and not Lionel Messi and Argentina.
Still unbeaten since their heroic 3-0 second leg World Cup playoff win over Ukraine in Paris, a second clean sheet of the group stages will be another huge boost for Deschamps' side. However, it is now crucial that he reverts to one of the previous two formations displayed in Brazil if he wants to see the team replicate the same level of performance that has seen them earn plenty of admiration already this summer.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.