France prove they are contenders
For 75 minutes at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador on Friday, France put in arguably their most memorable FIFA World Cup performance since 1998. But, 5-0 up against Switzerland and looking capable of scoring more goals, Les Bleus switched off and Didier Deschamps' men allowed their neighbours two quick-fire goals.
The game finished 5-2 in northeast Brazil, but the two late goals somewhat took the shine off of an otherwise superlative showing from the French. Les Tricolores' Achilles' heel had been exposed and now Deschamps will be keen to remedy it before the final Group E clash with Ecuador on Wednesday.
His players proved to him that they can deliver at one end and managed to keep it relatively tight at the other for the most part of the game, but Mamadou Sakho's 66th-minute departure appeared to have an effect. The Liverpool man was replaced by Laurent Koscielny and the Arsenal man proceeded to concede the free kick that Blerim Dzemaili scored from, and then was the defender caught out by the ball over the top for Granit Xhaka for Switzerland's second.
At one end of the pitch, the French were clinical and looked as if they could score at any moment.
Olivier Giroud, Blaise Matuidi, Mathieu Valbuena, Karim Benzema and Moussa Sissoko all got themselves on the scoresheet and the team was looking comfortable up until Sakho's exit. But after that, the players allowed their concentration to lapse and -- as we saw against Paraguay in the warm-up game in Nice -- they conceded late on.
Deschamps and his players must address this, otherwise stronger sides will punish them and it will undo all of their hard work. Key to remedying this Achilles' heel is making a final decision about a first-choice central defensive pairing and it looks as if the Frenchman has finally made his choice.
It was a game where Sakho and Raphael Varane came of age internationally, both displaying remarkable maturity to keep out a Swiss side that still posed a number of threats despite their poor afternoon. The pair are expected to be France's first-choice central defensive partnership for the European Championship on home soil in 2016, and this match goes a along way towards proving that they are the right duo to provide the necessary solidity at the back that Deschamps needs.
For that initial 75 minutes -- before the French switched off -- they appeared to be the real deal; a team capable of challenging for the title and with enough in-form players in the right positions to pose a threat to anyone they meet outside of the group stages. Varane and Sakho were providing a solid base for the midfield to get forward and aid the attack, while the strikers looked razor sharp and capable of finishing any chance that came their way.
Deschamps will want to harness this sort of performance and then replicate it in future. It seems unlikely that the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship winner will change his system too much for the final group game against Ecuador, so expect this to be largely the team that Les Bleus tackle the latter stages with -- assuming that they do officially make it.
Although they seem complete based on the majority of Friday's performance, they are not. This team is still a work in progress and that should scare their potential future opponents in this summer.
The defence is still a pertinent issue, but questions remain about how efficient the attack will be against a top opponent. Switzerland -- although sixth in the FIFA rankings -- cannot be considered in that bracket, meaning that France still have one or two points to prove as they progress through this tournament.
For now, though, they can enjoy the richly deserved praise that will come their way after such an impressive victory. If this is a French side not yet reaching its full potential and Deschamps can get it right in the final group-stage match and going into the latter stages, then France could become more than just hopefuls. But for now, they will be taking it one step at a time.