|Karim Benzema during a training session
Rio de Janeiro: France seek to extend their rampant start to the World Cup on Wednesday when they need a point against Ecuador, at the Maracana, here, to secure top spot in Group E and further banish the memories of their implosion four years ago.
However, the second-placed Ecuador, too, would be desperate to pull off a shock win over the resurgent former champions as they seek to book their own spot in the knockout stage ahead of Switzerland, who trail them on goal difference. The game is also likely to bring along with it a contest between the firing Karim Benzema and Ecuador’s highly impressive Enner Valencia.
France lead the group with six points, followed by Ecuador and Switzerland on three points apiece and Honduras at the bottom with no points after two defeats. A win or draw for France would mean they would probably avoid meeting Argentina in the last 16.
Coach Didier Deschamps has transformed the national team from the bad boys of the 2010 edition in South Africa into a side drawing comparisons with the World Cup-winning side of 1998 that rocked on home soil. In contrast to the lack of discipline four years ago, Deschamps has stamped his authority on the team, leaving top players to warm the benches when he sees the need.
Striker Olivier Giroud was surprisingly named as a substitute for their first match against Honduras but returned to the team in style on Friday when he scored the opener and created another goal in the 5-2 rout of Switzerland. He is likely to start against Ecuador.
There could be a recall to the starting XI for midfielder Paul Pogba who was relegated to the bench against Switzerland after almost getting sent off against Honduras.
France's comfortable position means Deschamps can shrug off the loss of suspended midfielder Yohan Cabaye, with Lille’s Rio Mavuba set to come in. He can also contemplate replacing centre-back Mamadou Sakho — who came off against the Swiss with a thigh problem — with Laurent Koscielny. Eliaquim Mangala is also on standby as Raphael Varane has been laid low by a stomach bug.
By no means are the French taking the Ecuadorians lightly. “We need to avoid taking our foot off the pedal even if there is not a huge amount at stake,” fullback Mathieu Debuchy said. “We want to win this match and maintain our dynamism in order to prepare well for what is to come.”
On the other hand, Ecuador manager Reinaldo Rueda is likely to field the same team that beat Honduras 2-1 last week and revived their World Cup campaign after a last-gasp opening defeat to Switzerland.
However, with the Ecuadorians favouring a direct approach, Wednesday’s game could well be a high-scoring encounter. Wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero will provide the ammunition for Felipe Caicedo and the in-form Enner, who has three goals so far.
“France are going to be very difficult opponents. We know France’s strengths, but we have to take care if we want to hurt them,” Enner said.
Coach Rueda said how that 1-2 loss to the Swiss had dealt a heavy blow to his players who are seeking to put their country into the knockout phase for only the second time. "They were difficult hours for the squad which is a young one," he said.
“I think a bit of inexperience had led to the goals we conceded and Switzerland's win.”
Rueda said he was keeping his fingers crossed as he feels Honduras too could pull off an upset and beat the Swiss, who are breathing down Ecuador's neck.
The veteran Edison Mendez added: “France have played very well in their two matches so far. Collectively, they are doing well and are getting into the box a lot, so it is going to be a totally different game for us.”