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France defeats Nigeria 2-0 in World Cup last-16 clash
Paul Pogba's second-half header gives French advantage
Joseph Yobo nets an own-goal in stoppage time
France will play Germany in the quarterfinals
Redemption is not easy to attain.
Four years on and the scars still remain.
When France’s footballers left for Brazil, they were under no illusions – it cannot happen again.
At South Africa 2010, “Les Bleus” became a laughing stock as players and coaches clashed, strikes were threatened and results embarrassed a nation.
Players were suspended, the entire country waged war on a group which had imploded and exited at the group stage after failing to win a single game.
Four years ago the picture was grim.
Fast-forward to the present and perhaps, just perhaps, France may get the opportunity to shock the world for all the right reasons.
A 2-0 victory over Nigeria in Brasilia on Monday ensured its progress to the quarterfinals and a meeting with Germany, which beat Algeria 2-1 after extra time.
It is a far cry for the disillusionment and disappointment which cast a shadow of French football during its last foray into the World Cup.
“What happened, happened,” coach Didier Deschamps said when he announced his 2014 World Cup roster on national television.
“That won’t go away. It put a stamp on our history. But we don’t need to discuss it again.”
Deschamps and his players have spoken at length of moving on from the embarrassment of four years ago – but few expected them to achieve much in Brazil.
After all, this is a France side which only just scraped into the tournament courtesy of a 3-0 playoff victory over Ukraine in Paris after suffering a 2-0 victory in the first leg.
But Deschamps, a World Cup hero on home soil in 1998, has brought about a unity in the squad which has not been seen for many a year.
His decision to leave out Manchester City’s Samir Nasri caused controversy outside of the squad – but it did not surprise those who know Deschamps as the single-minded man that he is.
He commands respect – it helps if you’ve won the World Cup and European Championships as well as a host of titles at club level.
And his players are responding – even when not at their best as they were during the first half against Nigeria.
But such is the quality at his disposal, Deschamps never panicked, even when Nigeria appeared to take the game to his side in the opening 45 minutes.
Paul Pogba’s 79th minute header and an own-goal from Joseph Yobo smoothed France’s passage into the next round following a difficult afternoon.
“I am very proud of everything we did from the start,” Deschamps told French television after the game.
“There was tension out there. They are a very strong side and there were a lot of duels.
“But we’re through. We’re in the quarter finals and we’ll do everything we can to go a stage further.”
Only three African teams have ever reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup – Ghana the last to do so four years ago.
But Nigeria’s campaign has been blighted by inconsistency and rows over appearance fees – a matter so serious that the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, was forced to intervene and assure players they would be paid.
Form has also been a problem – a drab goalless draw against Iran in its opening game of the tournament was followed by a narrow victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A 3-2 defeat by Argentina, in which Lionel Messi scored twice, ensured Nigeria qualified in second place despite having only managed a solitary win.
But France, a side which won its group with a style and swagger which was so sorely lacking four years ago, hinted at a far more difficult challenge.
After all, Nigeria had managed just one victory in its previous 11 World Cup matches and suffered defeat on both occasions it had reached the second round in 1994 and 1998.
But if anyone had expected France to simply brush Nigeria aside, they were sorely mistaken.
The Super Eagles, who won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013, arrived in Brasilia as underdogs, not that you would have known it during the early stages of the contest.
While France appeared slow and sluggish, those in green began in sprightly fashion and thought they had taken the lead after 19 minutes.
Ahmed Musa, the man who terrorized Argentina with two fine goals, picked out Emmanuel Emenike inside the penalty area and the striker turned the ball home.
Unfortunately for Nigeria, Emenike had strayed just offside – not by much, but enough for the flag of the assistant referee to be held high and bring a curtailment to the celebrations.
Perhaps that piece of luck awoke France from its slumber as just moments later a fine move almost broke the deadlock.
Paul Pogba, one of the most exciting young midfielders in the game, burst into space before feeding Mathieu Valbuena.
Valbuena, free of any Nigeria pressure, then produced an inch-perfect cross that Pogba met with a rasping volley which Vincent Enyeama saved in spectacular fashion.
Enyeama, who plays his club football in France with Lille, kept more clean sheets than any other in Ligue 1 last season.
But that save apart, he was a mere spectator in the first half with France failing to register another shot on target.
France, which had lost two of its previous three World Cup games against African opposition, might have been expected to emerge a different side after the interval.
But that fluidity so evident in group-stage victories over Honduras and Switzerland still proved elusive.
Instead, Nigeria continued to look the more threatening of the two sides – Peter Odemwingie’s fierce effort bringing a sharp save out of Hugo Lloris in the French goal.
By that time, France could have and possibly should have been reduced to 10 men following a horrific tackle by Blaise Matuidi on Ogneyi Onazi.
U.S. referee Mark Geiger showed a yellow card – much to the consternation of the Nigerians, who believed the challenge warranted more than just a caution.
It was only with the introduction of Antoine Griezmann in place of the disappointing Olivier Giroud up front that France began to look dangerous.
It was Griezmann who helped create the chance of the game with 20 minutes remaining.
The Real Sociedad forward played a one-two with Karim Benzema, sending the Real Madrid striker in on goal – but his effort was partially saved by Enyeama and hacked off the goal-line by Victor Moses.
Suddenly, it was France which began to take control, with its passing game finally causing Nigeria problems.
First, Benzema crashed an effort across goal which had those in green shirts panicking, while Yohan Cabaye’s spectacular 20-yard effort smashed across the crossbar with Enyeama beaten.
But, with 11 minutes to go, France finally got the breakthrough it had threatened.
Enyeama came to deal with a corner and when he could only flap at the ball, Pogba nodded home from close range.
“There are no words to describe this,” said Pogba after helping his side past Nigeria.
“I know there is a whole country behind us. Scoring that goal really liberated us. I am so happy for the team and all France. I’m speechless.
“To score a goal for your country, especially in an important match like this to get into the World Cup quarter finals, it’s one of the best moments of my life.”
Pogba’s goal – the 146th of the tournament, one more than was managed at the entire 2010 World Cup – set up a frantic finale as Nigeria pushed forward in search of an equalizer.
But every time those in green swarmed forward, France moved to exploit the space and only a wonderful save by Enyeama stopped Griezmann from doubling his side’s advantage.
The second goal appeared inevitable and it duly arrived during stoppage time when Joseph Yobo, making his 100th international appearance, deflected Mathieu Valbuena’s cross into his own net.
It was a sad end to an afternoon which had begun with such promise for Nigeria – but for France, the chance for redemption remains.
Read: Germany overcomes Algerian challenge