The last time Switzerland encountered France at a World Cup was in 2006 when a goalless tie subjected billions of viewers from around the globe to what one could only have been described as cruel and unusual punishment. Eight years later in Salvador, however, the French served up a treat with one of the best performances of the tournament.
Even after they dismantled Honduras in their opening game 3-0, few pundits mentioned France as being amongst the World Cup favorites. This isn’t necessarily surprising given how pathetic the Hondurans were, but a 5-2 demolition of an decent Switzerland side might finally force people to sit up and ask whether Les Bleus can be mentioned in the same breath as Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina, and Brazil. If yesterday’s performance is anything to go by, only a fool would rule them out.
The problem with France was that even with their ‘Golden Generation’ they looked decidedly rusty without the creative influence of the great Zinedine Zidane and have longed for his replacement (see Yoann Gourcuff) without adapting to the players and conditions they find. This failure has seen the team struggle on the global – or even European – stage Zidane’s retirement. But in Brazil there is ample evidence that few sides will be happy to encounter Didier Deschamp’s men in the knock-out stage.
Although he missed a penalty yesterday, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema looks like a very good bet for the tournament’s top goalscorer. But it’s also his link-up play that’s providing to be crucial. After Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud had put France ahead, seconds later Benzema played a neat ball through to Paris Saint-Germain’s midfielder Blaise Matuidi to double their lead. For the third Benzema was again involved, picking off a Swiss corner to pass to Raphaël Varane who played a great ball to Giroud who set up all 5’ 6” of Mathieu Valbuena for a simple tap-in.
After cruising through the first-half, France would have to wait until the 67th minute before Benzema put them up by four. Perfectly timing his run to latch on to substitute Paul Pogba’s beautiful pass, Benzema compounded Diego Benaglio’s misery by scoring his third goal of the tournament through the tormented Swiss goalkeeper’s legs. Although they could have scored more, the French had to make do with just five (the last time they scored more than five in a World Cup fixture was in 1958). Benzema completed his man of the match performance with an assist for Newcastle United’s Moussa Sissoko.
A late free kick from Blerim Dzemaili (which Benzema probably should’ve blocked) and a sublime finish from Granit Xhaka reduced the deficit, but the thrashing was complete. In fact, given the number of chances France had throughout the 90 minutes, the Swiss might want to count themselves lucky that Les Bleus never got into double figures. Last night’s fixture was much more of a spectacle than eight years ago. That disappointing fixture helped spark the French into life—all the way to the final. If Deschamp’s men can continue to improve, might they go one better?
What we learned about … France: Magnifique (sorry). If disunity has plagued French squads at recent tournaments their route of Switzerland certainly symbolized that of a united front. Deschamp, who captained France to triumphs in both the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships, can probably take a lot of credit for this. But beyond Benzema, players such as Pogba, Varane, and especially Valbuena have been superb. The low-point of their pathetic showing four years ago is long gone. They might not be on the lips of every pundit and commentator, but the French are contenders.
What we learned about … Switzerland: This was extremely worrying for the Swiss. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side was never going to leave Brazil renowned for scoring bags of goals and playing beautiful soccer, but you would count on them to bring a stubborn defense. Yesterday was anything but. Honduras should not provide too many problems for the Swiss, especially given that they were already all but eliminated from the tournament last night against Ecuador. But this is familiar territory for Switzerland (and Hitzfeld). Four years ago they opened their campaign with a victory over Spain only to go home early after they struggled in their next two games. They should be fine, but there are more holes in the Swiss defense than Swiss chee… oh, nevermind.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the US, covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. He is providing commentary for the Daily Caller on a regular basis throughout the World Cup. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt