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Jun 25, 2014

Deschamps cools French expectations

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Some folks thrive on confidence. The stronger they feel, the stronger they are.

Others feed on insecurity. The closer they are to the edge of the precipice, the more the adrenaline kicks in, the more they perform.

Right now, Didier Deschamps know that his France team are flying. They have two wins in two games, having scored eight goals and allowed, just two, both of them in garbage time vs. Switzerland. They are, arguably, the team that has played best in this World Cup.

"The danger is that we're going too fast, everything is happening too quickly," Deschamps said Tuesday, echoing the thoughts of his boss, French FA president Noel Le Graet.

If you remember Deschamps as a player, you can see where he's coming from. He may have won it all -- five league titles, two Champions League crowns (plus he was a losing finalist three times), a World Cup and a European championship -- but it was never with Gallic bluster. On the contrary, he was the prototypical humble leader, famously dubbed the "water-carrier". He was the grunt, clearing the brush for the conquering general (often, Zinedine Zidane) on his white steed.

He has the caution of the man in the trenches, which is where he spent most of his career. It's no coincidence that, even as a manager, particularly at club level, he has often been "safety-first". That's what happens when you reach finals and the brink of glory, only for it to crumble and run through your fingers like dust.

Equally, Deschamps knows that arguably the best game Les Bleus have produced under his command was when they were looking disaster straight in the eye. France were beaten 2-0 away to Ukraine in the two-legged playoff for a place in Brazil 2014. However, just days later, back in Paris at the Stade de France, abandoned by half the population and with the other half fearing the worst, they conjured up a brilliant 3-0 victory to secure their place.

Fear and insecurity drove that. But when he looks around this France team, he sees very little of it heading into Wednesday's clash with Ecuador and that's why he's concerned. That's why, after the 5-2 hammering of Switzerland, he made it a point to stress how his men could take nothing for granted and how important the third and final group game would be.

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In theory, he's right. If France lose to Ecuador today by FOUR goals AND Switzerland defeat Honduras by FIVE goals then Les Bleus are going home.

Guess what? Ain't gonna happen.

And yet Deschamps wants his players to believe it can because he fears what can occur when France get a little too high on themselves. After all, he knows. He left the national team as captain of a side that made history when they became world and European champions only to crash and burn in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup.

He saw them sail through the group stage at Euro 2004, only to be upended in the quarterfinals by Greece. Zinedine Zidane carried them to the World Cup final in 2006, only to be undone by a moment of madness that ultimately cost them another world title. Deschamps knows of the utter winless humiliations of Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup and how Les Bleus withered and shriveled up after another bright start at Euro 2012.

Not on his watch.

That's part of the reason why he juggled his team between the first and second game. Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba started against the Hondurans, while Olivier Giroud and Moussa Sissoko came in vs. the Swiss. It's why there will likely be more changes for the game at the Maracana. Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny and Morgan Schneiderlin could come in, possibly Griezmann or Pogba too.

France beat Honduras in their opening game before destroying Switzerland with one of the performances of the tournament..

It's not entirely a coincidence that Deschamps' mentor, Marcello Lippi, did just that with Italy in 2006, constantly changing his eleven and his formation throughout the tournament. And he was rewarded with a World Cup. But there's also the fact that he wants players on their toes. The squad, thus far, has accepted it.

"We respect him for his career, as a player and a manager," says Giroud. "But also, he has earned our credibility."

The survivors of the 2010 debacle know full well what a divided camp can do. Deschamps knew that simply not being Raymond Domenech would help but he went further, trying to exorcise any element of potential disharmony. The exclusion of Samir Nasri, clearly, falls into that category. ("I don't want anybody who could upset the balance of the group," he said.) But, equally, with hindsight, you wonder if the injury to Franck Ribery wasn't some kind of blessing in disguise as well.

- Laurens: French defence yet to be tested
- 50-50 Challenge: Ecuador vs. France

As great as Ribery can be -- and was in 2012-13 -- he is as close to a national institution as France have right now. But he was also coming off a very difficult season and is precisely the kind of veteran who is difficult to drop. Bringing Ribery to Brazil would have meant effectively locking up a slot in his starting XI and if the late 2013-14 version of the winger had shown up, the risk was that Deschamps would have had to carry deadweight, the kind you can't shift without, inevitably, causing controversy.

Instead, he can count on a France camp that is, outwardly at least, as harmonious as any we've seen in recent years. Plus, without Ribery, he has a more flexible team, one that can seamlessly switch from 4-3-3 to 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2.

And yet... with Deschamps you just don't know. You wonder if maybe he wishes things hadn't come so easily. And you're sure as heck that he does not want any of his players taking a peek at the potential Round of 16 opponents (Iran? Nigeria?) and maybe thinking ahead to what awaits in the quarters (Germany?) and beyond (Brazil?).

Gabriele Marcotti

A London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer, he is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN FC TV and read him here twice a week.