France must cope with knockout pressure
Despite few certainties before touching down in Brazil, France's two wins and one draw in Group E have seen an upbeat and positive mood in the camp. With momentum going into the knockout round, France are now preparing for their round of 16 game against Nigeria with a lot of confidence.
Physically, there are no problems. The French have dealt very well with their first three games. Coach Didier Deschamps made two changes from the first match against Honduras (3-0) to the second one against Switzerland (5-2) and six for the final versus Ecuador (0-0). The rotation has been good and, apart from centre-back Mamadou Sakho, who is struggling a bit with a hamstring problem, everybody is fit and raring to go.
Technically, France has never been better, either. Les Bleus have been exceptional on the ball in their first two matches, showing pace, skill, movement and pressure. They were a delight to watch, and they have reached -- both as a team and as individuals -- their best level since Deschamps took over two years ago.
They are able to play well in possession and play well in transition, but what about mentally? For me, this is the biggest worry before the game against Nigeria. Age is one thing -- this is France's youngest squad at a World Cup since 1954 - and it is good to have some young and fresh legs (that's why, physically, things are good), but youth usually means a lack of experience.
Of the 23 French players in Brazil, none have played a knockout game in a World Cup. Actually, only four players from this squad (Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra, Mathieu Valbuena and Bacary Sagna, for a combined total of nine games) have played in the competition before (in 2010), and we all know how that worked out. The average number of caps per player in the squad is 21, which ranks France 30th among the 32 nations in this World Cup; only Australia and Algeria have less. On top of that, with an average age of just over 26, France are the 12th youngest squad in the competition.
So how do you approach such a massive game when you have never played one like it before?
The nerves can easily take over. Deschamps has great experience in these kind of games, both as player and manager, but it's difficult to transmit to players who have never been there before. Without the experience, the occasion, the pressure and the expectation can easily upset your form and transform your confidence into fear and your momentum into paralysis.
Not only is this French squad a newcomer on the international scene, but even in terms of Champions League experience, it's poor. Evra (in 2008), Raphael Varane and Karim Benzema (in 2014) have won it; Lloris (in 2010) and Sagna (in 2009) have reached a semifinal; Matuidi, Cabaye (in 2014), Pogba (in 2013) and Valbuena (in 2012) a quarterfinal, but that's it. The other 14 players in the squad have never even gone as far as the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
It is a problem, and Deschamps is aware of it. "How many players do I have with more than 50 caps?" he said in a news conference. "Just three [Evra, Lloris and Benzema]. But how many players with at least 50 caps are available for me for selection? Not many at all. It is a problem. It will take time for some players to get some international experience and get to 50 caps and over. It is a learning curve."
The coach will try to pass on his vast experience and his own history. For that, he talks a lot individually with them. But nothing can replace games and experience on the pitch. Part of Matuidi's great development in the past two years is because he has been playing regularly with France; the impact the 2006 World Cup had on Franck Ribery's evolution and progress was immense -- he was 23 at the time, and the competition set his career on an upward trajectory.
The Nigeria squad is hardly much older and probably has even less experience, but in a game such as this, you can only focus on your players. And for France, there is a big possibility that the nerves will take over and cost them dearly. That's when your key players, the Lloris, Evras and Benzemas, have to take charge and carry the rest of the team. The whole French nation will be waiting with baited breath to see how they cope.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.