France must deal with new pressure of expectation
RIBEIRAO PRETO, Brazil (AP) Having captured people's attention at the World Cup with some scintillating attacking football, France's players are now in unknown territory after raising expectations back home.
''Vertigineux'' (vertiginous) was the front page headline of sports daily L'Equipe on Saturday, illustrating how France has hit new heights with a photo of striker Olivier Giroud leaping into the arms of his teammates after scoring in Friday's 5-2 rout of Switzerland. The emphatic victory followed a 3-0 win over Honduras in the team's opener in Group E.
''No one was expecting this result,'' center half Raphael Varane said Saturday. ''We exceeded our expectations and it surprised us in a positive way.''
Le Parisien's headline translated as ''We Love These Blues,'' reflecting how France has won the fans over again after the World Cup shambles of four years ago, when its reputation hit rock-bottom following a training ground strike.
Now France, which faces Ecuador on Wednesday, has to back up its early promise.
''We have to stay humble because we know that people will be expecting much more from us now,'' said Mathieu Valbuena, who scored one goal and set up another for Giroud.
None of the current France players have been in this position before at a World Cup. They were more used to hostile criticism from the media and the jeers of their home fans amid the fallout of that infamous strike.
''We can't get carried away because the road is still long,'' captain Hugo Lloris said. ''It's the job of the older players to get the message across to the younger ones.''
The European Championship two years ago repaired the damage a little, but the performance in the quarterfinal defeat to Spain was unconvincing. France then struggled to qualify for the World Cup, beating Ukraine 3-2 in a tense two-leg playoff.
Trailing 2-0 from the first leg, France was on the verge of elimination and dug deep.
''The match against Ukraine triggered everything,'' Valbuena said. ''If we played like that and did nothing afterward then it would have been for nothing.''
Although there were some impressive performances in the pre-tournament friendlies - Norway was crushed 4-0 and Jamaica demolished 8-0 - few could envision how rampant France's forward line would be in Brazil.
France has scored eight goals in two matches - the same as the Netherlands attack featuring Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, who have three goals each.
Forward Karim Benzema also has three, and could have had a hat trick in both games. He scored twice and created an own goal against Honduras, and missed a penalty and had a last-gasp goal chalked off against the Swiss.
He has still scored nine goals in his past eight games and set up midfielders Blaise Matuidi and Moussa Sissoko against the Swiss.
The strength of the France team is a solid midfield and the flexibility of its forward line, with Benzema, Valbuena and Giroud all interchanging positions to pull the Swiss apart.
Benzema is the undisputed leader of the attack, but he is also an astute playmaker who hurts defenses with his quick passing when he drops deep or drifts out wide.
''When you have players of this quality it leads to goals,'' Valbuena said. ''Everyone is pulling in the same direction.''
Coach Didier Deschamps has kept players focused by increasing competition for places.
After surprisingly dropping Giroud for the first game, replacing him with Antoine Griezmann, he dropped Griezmann and restored Giroud to the attack against Switzerland. The other change was even more daring, with Sissoko picked ahead of coveted playmaker Paul Pogba.
Deschamps was fully vindicated, with Giroud also creating a goal for Valbuena and Pogba creating Benzema's goal moments after coming on.
''The coach often says that everyone has a part to play,'' Sissoko said. ''There were two changes (against Switzerland) and there may be more in the next match.''