New-look France shows maturity under pressure
RIBEIRAO PRETO, Brazil (AP) Aside from France's new-found panache in attack, it was the composure in the face of some ferocious tackling that really stood out in France's 3-0 World Cup win against Honduras.
Striker Karim Benzema took the acclaim after scoring twice and playing a decisive role in the other goal. But Sunday's Group E contest against a side reduced to 10 men just before halftime was really settled behind him as France's midfield and fullbacks kept calm in a hostile situation.
Four years ago, France's team could not even handle their nerves in training, let alone a match. They fell apart completely, with Nicolas Anelka's expletive-raced rant at former coach Raymond Domenech prompting the infamous training ground strike that shamed a nation.
It was a shambolic World Cup for France, outplayed by Mexico and beaten by an average South Africa side as it crashed out of the group stage without winning a game and with its reputation in tatters.
Coach Didier Deschamps has made sure there are cooler heads this time around, and they were needed against a Honduras team seemingly intent on turning the game into a scrap.
''This is the highest level, it's never easy to start a competition and you always have doubts. You wonder how each player will respond,'' Deschamps said Monday. ''It's my job to warn them in advance. We'd seen Honduras' matches over the past two years. We knew they would be very committed and that we had to be too, but not to get drawn in. Apart from one or two reactions everyone controlled themselves well in that respect.''
The exception was midfielder Paul Pogba, because otherwise France showed maturity to withstand some intense provocation.
Pogba was perhaps fortunate to escape with just a yellow card when he lashed out at fellow midfielder Wilson Palacios, who had gone through him with a heavy challenge.
''I'm not here to point the finger at him, I'm here to help him and to make sure that he controls himself,'' Deschamps said. ''The way he plays means that he takes a lot of blows. Given his size and height, it's easier to foul him than a smaller player - although Mathieu (Valbuena) was roughed up quite a bit.''
Deschamps, himself a tough-tackling combative midfielder when he led France to the World Cup title in 1998, took Pogba off after 57 minutes. Although he did not explicitly say it was to prevent him getting sent off, Deschamps hinted that the Juventus star must learn not to retaliate.
''When you play at the highest level you need to be in total control of yourself,'' Deschamps said, adding that the hype surrounding the 21-year-old Pogba may be affecting his concentration.
''There's so much excitement about him. Even though he does have a lot of qualities, you talk about him like he's the star of the tournament,'' Deschamps said. ''You shouldn't go so fast, because this kind of environment isn't easy to handle, even though he's in a big club where he's expected to win every match. But he's still young and he's still got room for improvement.''
The other two yellows were for midfielder Yohan Cabaye and left back Patrice Evra, both of whom had been clattered several times. Honduras' players charged into the back of players on almost every high ball and regularly left their foot in on tackles.
''They were very aggressive from the outset,'' Deschamps said.
France's next match, thankfully for those nursing bruises, is against a Switzerland side more renowned for trying to play constructive football.
''Their attack is much different, with much more impact and individual quality, especially from the wingers,'' Deschamps. ''Obviously they'll be committed, but it won't be anything like we saw (against Honduras).''
France picked up one minor injury from Sunday's game, with Cabaye going off midway through the second half with a groin problem.
''I'll know more about it later today,'' Deschamps said ahead of Monday's afternoon training session.