France growing with each success
In the space of 90 minutes against Nigeria in Brasilia, this young and fairly inexperienced French squad showed the maturity of a veteran side.
It was a big test of character, their first one in this World Cup, and they passed. It was dramatic and you could not have made it up. The French, all of them (players, staff, journalists and fans in Brazil and back home) went through all the different feelings that a football game can provide: nervousness, anxiety, relief, pure jubilation and satisfaction.
It was fascinating to see this team be confronted with a lot of different issues and sort them out as the game went on.
The learning curve continues for les Bleus in their quest for greatness, and they will continue to learn a lot from their World Cup experience, such as how to deal with the pressure of such a big game. None of these players had ever played in a World Cup last-16 game before. It was unknown to them. They were nervous early on. You could tell. But they never panicked. They regrouped and, little by little, got into the game.
They were also faced with how to deal with a few weak moments where they were struggling. This was the case halfway through the second half. At the time, Patrice Evra was drowning, Yohan Cabaye had disappeared (and so had Paul Pogba) and Blaise Matuidi was committing more fouls than ever.
France were outplayed in the middle of the park. They could not hold the ball and make two consecutive passes. Luckily, they could rely on a solid keeper and two solid centre-halves; they stayed focused and they waited for the storm to pass.
They had to deal with frustration, as well. The game was not going their way as easily as the first two (Honduras and Switzerland). They were frustrated by the great saves Vincent Enyeama was making or by the crossbar saving him. They were annoyed because they were not in control for big parts of the match.
Matuidi should have been sent off for a bad challenge on Ogenyi Onazi. Olivier Giroud seemed nervous, partly probably because he was struggling to have an impact on the game. But they managed to turn that frustration into a positive new energy. Because they didn't concede when Nigeria were on top, the belief came back when the French managed to pull their heads out of the water.
As individuals, they will be better players, too. Pogba is only 21. He has the world at his feet already after two Serie A titles in two years with Juventus. Despite all his talent and incredible potential, he is learning that expectations around him are so big already. Even one bad game (like the one against Ecuador), and he gets heavily criticized by the press and questioned by the fans.
What do you expect from Pogba, even at 21? You expect him to be decisive in key games. What did he do vs. Nigeria? He was decisive with an opportunistic opening goal and a very positive first half, too.
Antoine Griezmann must have been disappointed not to start. He watched from the bench as France struggled to create much. But he came on and changed the tie.
This game will also reinforce the influence manager Didier Deschamps has on his team. His coaching was perfect.
He brought on Griezmann at the right time and resisted the temptation of taking Pogba off to bring Moussa Sissoko on. It all paid off. In a game that France could have easily lost, Deschamps proved once again that he has the X factor.
He has the luck of a winner and has yet to lose a last-16 tie (as player or manager). Since he took over in July 2012, everything he does works (apart from the 0-0 draw in Georgia in September and the 2-0 defeat in Ukraine in the WC playoff first leg). He is the main reason France have come back from the dead. And his players know that the manager played a big part in their victory.
Of course, not everything was perfect vs. Nigeria.
Evra was a liability on the left side. It's not a surprise, though, considering his age (33) and his poor season at Manchester United. Giroud, as mentioned already, had no influence on the game. Karim Benzema was very quiet until he moved from left into the centre and was denied twice by Enyeama. Unlike against Switzerland, his relationship with Giroud didn't work today.
Mathieu Debuchy made poor choices when he was on the ball. Cabaye didn't protect his back four well enough at times. But it didn't matter in the end.
That's the good thing with this France team. The quarterfinals are here but there is still a lot of room for improvement. But make no mistake. After this game, what they went through and the outcome of it, France are already a much stronger team than they were before kickoff. They are better as a unit and as a team. They aren't better as individuals. They might not know it yet, but they no doubt are.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.