By Liam Mackey at the Maracana
Ecuador 0 France 0
France badly misplaced their shooting boots at the Maracana here in Rio de Janeira and, when they did breach ten-man Ecuador, found goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez an immovable object.
But, in the end, an anxious 90 minutes for manager Didier Deschamps finished with the scoreless draw which is enough to see his side through to the knock-out phase and a clash with Nigeria.
While it might seem odd to have ever thought of former World Cup winners as outsiders for Brazil 2014, it was only last November, when Les Bleus were beaten 2-0 in the first leg of their qualifying play-off by Ukraine, that L’Equipe was minded to pose the question: “Is this the worst team in French history?”
The resounding answer came when they won the second leg 3-0 and the French haven’t looked back since, going into this game having scored eight goals in their first two group assignments here in Brazil.
But a side which showed no less than six changes from their last outing scarcely had it so easy against spirited Ecuador who, despite going down to ten men when losing Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia to a red card early in the second half, were firm in keeping the opposition at bay and always dangerous on the counter-attack.
While Ecuador’s manager Reinaldo Rueda had contented himself with just one change from the team which battled Honduras to a 2-1 win, Didier Deschamps opted for a major cabinet reshuffle, signalling the return of Antoine Griezmann (in for Olivier Geroud) and midfielder Paul Pogba (for the suspended Yohan Cabaye), as well as starts in defence for Lucas Digne, Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny.
But, in their changed strip, Les Bleus were Les Blancs and, on a night of mounting frustration, always looked like drawing one, despite Karim Benzema having gone into the game on the trail of the golden boot with three goals already to his name.
After their team’s bright start began to fade around the fifteenth minute mark – an ominous sign of things to come - the French supporters in the Maracana gave a reprise of their stirring national anthem, but it hardly had the desired inspirational effect.
In fact, it took until the 37th minute for the French – and a dull first half – to burst into life.
First, Alexander Dominguez tipped a Paul Pogba header over the bar, then Ecuador’s own three-goal man Enner Valencia produced a towering leap at the back post to force Hugo Lloris into action and finally Benzema himself had his first shot on target - a curling effort that was comfortably saved by Domingues.
France were quick out of traps at the resumption of play, Dominguez reacting superbly to turn Griezmann’s flick onto the post, but the game’s big talking point came moments later when skipper Antonio Valencia was shown a red card after a challenge which left Lucas Digne requiring lengthy treatment.
Yet, Ecuador’s immediate response was spirited, the yellow shorts suddenly finding themselves with a man over on the counter-attack, only for Christhian Noboa to completely miss the target.
After that, the traffic might have been mainly – but certainly not entirely – one-way. However, in addition to facing robust defending, France managed to squander plenty of opportunities to give themselves the advantage on the scoreline they were enjoying on the pitch.
So Deschamps rang the changes again, sending in Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud for Blaise Matuidi, as French anxiety about their qualification prospects suddenly began to show, even as the Swiss continued to do their bit for the European cause against Honduras.
And French nerves were really jangling when, as Ecuador played to maximum effect with minimum possession on the break, substitute Alex Ibarra forced an important save from Hugo Lloris.
Indeed, it was the South Americans, urgently chasing the win – though by now they needed two goals - who were applying all the pressure in the closing minutes, meaning the referee’s final whistle must have come as sweet relief to French ears.
Ecuador: Dominguez; Paredes, Guagua, Erazo, Ayovi; A Valencia, Minda, Noboa (Caicedo 88), Montero (Ibarra 63), Arroyo (Achilier 80); E Valencia.
France: Lloris; Sagna, Koscielny, Sakho (Varane 60), Digne; Matuidi (Giroud 66), Pogba, Schneiderlin, Sissoko; Griezmann (Remy 78), Benzema
Referee: Noumandiez Doue (Ivory Coast)