Griezmann shows he belongs in France starting XI
France are into the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals for the seventh time in their history, but they were made to work hard by a determined Nigeria side in Brasilia. The Super Eagles can consider themselves unfortunate -- particularly as Blaise Matuidi was not shown a deserved straight red card for a crunching challenge on Ogenyi Onazi in the second half -- but Les Bleus ultimately showed enough grit to secure a 2-0 win thanks to Paul Pogba's header and a late Joseph Yobo own goal at Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha.
For the majority of the game in the Brazilian capital, though, there only looked like there was going to be one winner.
France were not at their same brilliant best that fans saw in the first two rounds of the group stages and appeared to wither in the heat in central Brazil, with Arsenal attacker Olivier Giroud looking off the pace more than most. The French No. 9 had been the subject of debate prematch, with many suggesting that Antoine Griezmann would continue in the starting XI instead of him. That did not prove to be the case.
It did prove to be the match-winning change from France coach Didier Deschamps though.
Giroud's poor performance -- in tiring conditions it has to be said -- prompted the former 1998 World Cup and 2000 UEFA European Championship-winning captain to make a change in the 62nd minute. Off came the ineffective Giroud and on came the spritely young Griezmann, eager to take his latest chance in the side. The impact of the change became apparent almost immediately.
Vibrant, full of movement and with a desire to prove that he should have kept his place in the starting XI, the Real Sociedad star was the last player that Stephen Keshi's tiring Nigeria side will have wanted to see. Particularly as they were denied the disadvantage of having an extra man by referee Mark Geiger's poor decision to not brandish the red card to Paris Saint-Germain's Matuidi. Griezmann, a 23-year-old natural wide player slotted into the left side of attack for Karim Benzema -- who is only loosely deployed on the left in order to roam behind Giroud and wreak havoc along with diminutive creator Mathieu Valbuena -- and immediately brought more balance to the side with Benzema shifting more toward the center.
Deschamps played his hand perfectly, because that change made the ultimate difference and at the right moment. Griezmann's energy and fresh legs stretched the Nigerian back line, which, until that point, had dealt well with the threats posed by Benzema, Giroud and Valbuena thanks in no small measure to some stunning goalkeeping by Vincent Enyeama. Benzema began to see more of the ball once Griezmann came on -- although the Real Madrid man did little with it except for one brilliant exchange with the French No. 11 that was thwarted only by a goal-line clearance from Victor Moses -- and so too did Valbuena.
The Olympique de Marseille man had endured a frustrating second half until Griezmann's introduction, but came alive once again with the Sociedad man on the other side of Benzema. His reinvigoration proved vital; supplying the first for Pogba from a corner and the second by forcing Yobo to put through his own net thanks to Griezmann's pressure. The youngster -- despite having fewer than 10 caps to his name -- is starting to influence games and not just friendlies or group stage encounters; these are latter stage, life-or-death clashes.
Overall, it was an average performance from France and was salvaged only by the introduction of Griezmann and the incredible newfound spirit and unity displayed by Deschamps' team. Now that Les Bleus' tactician has made changes once again, he has to stick with the team that finished the Nigeria game. Griezmann has done enough to merit starting in the quarterfinal, while Giroud -- despite an impressive showing against Switzerland -- has done his claims some damage with that poor performance.
Now free from expectation after having achieved their main objective of reaching the last eight, this France side have it in them to go further if Deschamps allows them some consistency in his selections.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.