|Nigeria’s Joseph Yobo scores an own goal past Vincent Enyeama and Antoine Griezmann of France in Brasilia, on Monday. (Reuters)
Brasilia: There can be no position in sport where the dichotomy between hero and villain is defined more cruelly or narrowly than that of goalkeeper. For 79 minutes here, Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama had been inspired in standing up to everything that France could throw at him.
But then, just seconds after making a wonderful fingertip save to deny Karim Benzema, he rushed at a cross and gifted Paul Pogba what proved to be a decisive goal. An injury-time mix-up with Joseph Yobo subsequently gave far more comfort to the scorline than the France players had felt at any point during the match.
Nigeria were actually dominant for lengthy periods and, with Emmanuel Emenike’s first-half ‘goal’ only ruled out by the most marginal of offside decisions, they could easily be the team preparing for a quarter-final in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
The caveat for France’s seamless progress through the tournament had always been the relative weakness of their group and it was quickly obvious that Nigeria would pose a real threat to their progress.
With Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa providing pace out wide and Peter Odemwingie given licence to roam in the space behind Emenike, Nigeria were especially dangerous on the counter-attack. Odemwingie was particularly lively with his running between France’s midfield and defence, with Nigeria unfortunate not to be ahead at half-time. From a free-kick that was cleverly directed towards France’s near-post by Musa, Emenike deftly cushioned his finish between Hugo Lloris and the post.
Subsequent replays suggested that Emenike was offside by only the narrowest of margins. Odemwingie then exchanged passes with Emineke and forced a good save from Lloris. Didier Deschamps had made six changes from France’s previous match against Ecuador when his team were already qualified but, far from benefitting from the rest, key players looked jaded.
Benzema was asked to play out wide on the left, with Olivier Giroud handed the responsibility of knitting together France’s attack from the centre forward’s position. With Yohan Cabaye anchoring the French midfield following suspension, the greatest threat actually came both from Mathieu Valbuena’s clever passing and Paul Pogba’s runs from midfield.
The most compelling passage of first-half football was when Pogba powered forward and fed Valbuena before forcing a good save from Vincent Enyeama with his powerful volley.
Mathieu Debuchy was also threatening with his overlapping runs down the right and, after another clever exchange between Valbuena and Pogba, wasted an excellent chance with a wayward shot. Deschamps’ decision to start both Benzema and Giroud was clearly not working, with the Arsenal striker laboured in his running and Benzema peripheral.
Giroud had also been fortunate in the first half when he appeared to throw an elbow — albeit with limited force — into the face of John-Obi Mikel. Referee Mark Geiger was then even more lenient when Blaise Matuidi’s dangerous studs-up challenge put Nigeria midfielder Ogenyi Onazi out of the game on a stretcher with an ankle injury.
With Nigeria continuing to push France back – Odemwingie forced another good save from Lloris – Deschamps replaced Giroud with Antoine Griezman in the 62tn minute.
It allowed Benzema to move into his preferred role as the main central striker and he quickly put clear on goal after an exchange of passes with Griezman. Benzema tried to slide his shot beneath Enyeama, who got just enough contact to slow the ball and allow Moses to clear off the line. With Benzema clearly energised by the tactical change, France suddenly came to life and put together what was easily their best passage of the match.
Valbuena had a shot cleared off the line and Cabaye then rattled the crossbar with the follow-up. The quality of Valbuena’s delivery was again evident when he crossed for Benzema to force another wonderful save from Enyeama. The Nigeria goalkeeper was delivering an outstanding performance but, from the resulting corner, the adrenalin seemed to get the better of him.
Valbuena’a cross was again precise but Enyeama made an ill-judged attempt to collect the cross and only succeeded in palming the ball towards Pogba, who gratefully aimed his header into an empty goal.
Admirably. Enyeama did not let the mistake affect him and actually made another excellent late save to deny Benzema. By then, however, it was a case of too little too late for Nigeria, with France completing their rather fortuitous passage into the quarter-finals when Valbuena’s cross was turned into his own goal by Yobo.
France: Hugo Lloris; Mathieu Debuchy, Raphael Varane, Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra; Yohan Cabaye; Mathieu Valbuena (Moussa Sissoko 90+4), Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba; Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud (Antoine Griezmann 62).
Nigeria: Vincent Enyeama; Efe Ambrose, Juwon Oshaniwa, Kenneth Omeruo, Joseph Yobo; John Obi Mikel, Ogenyi Onazi (Ruben Gabriel 59), Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses (Uche Nwofor 89); Peter Odemwingie, Emmanuel Emenike.
Man of the Match: Paul Pogba
Referee: Mark Geiger (United States)