Goals dried up for free-scoring France in a 0-0 Group E stalemate with ten-man Ecuador, confirming top spot and a knockout tie against Nigeria for Didier Deschamps’ team while the CONMEBOL outfit bowed out of the FIFA World Cup™.
The first shot in earnest at the Maracana was dispatched from the boot of Antoine Griezmann, following a close-range exchange with team-mates Karim Benzema and Moussa Sissoko at the edge of the area, but the Real Sociedad winger’s drive on ten minutes dribbled wide. Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez then scooped in a sweetly-struck volley off the left foot of Sissoko from a similar area.
Enner Valencia, three times a scorer at this tournament already, skewed off-target after he raced onto a long ball along the edge of the French penalty area. Midway through a fiercely contested clash, the South Americans’ stopper failed to grasp in a centre from the right flank by the lively Sissoko but the delivery was marginally too strong for Benzema to connect in front of an effective open goal.
Midfielder Paul Pogba leaped to reach a precise Griezmann corner and the 21-year-old looped a threatening header back towards the net, but Dominguez tipped over with fingertips. At the other end, Enner Valencia produced a prodigious leap on 40 minutes to tower above diminutive full-back Lucas Digne and nod down from Michael Arroyo’s cross – Hugo Lloris required both hands to block low on the goalline.
When the two teams returned for the second half, Griezmann was a central figure again and could consider himself hugely unlucky not to strike within two minutes. Bacary Sagna supported the latest Les Bleus attack and clipped an invitation into the middle, where his younger colleague smartly flicked with the outside of his boot; the Ecuador ‘keeper somehow pushed onto the post.
The significant size of the task facing Reinaldo Rueda’s charges increased still in the 50th minute when captain Antonio Valencia was shown a straight red card by referee Noumandiez Doue for a challenge on Digne. Hopes were temporarily lifted when La Tri set off on a counter-attack and Enner Valencia waited patiently before releasing Christian Noboa wide to the right. But the No6 fell as he hacked off-target.
With the game stretching exponentially, teammates were thankful to Noboa for superbly blocking what looked a certain conversion by Pogba, stationed in a central position 20 yards from goal. Next, Benzema dispatched a dream pass into the surge of Blaise Matuidi, only for Dominguez to clutch quickly to the right and keep the score goalless.
By definition a defensive midfielder, Morgan Schneiderlin nevertheless felt compelled to volley a bouncing ball when the chance presented itself, but the hit flew over. Far simpler was a four-yard header for Pogba at the back post, picked out with accuracy by Sagna, yet the effort travelled surprisingly the wrong side of goal.
Ecuador substitute Alex Ibarra threatened an unlikely breakthrough when he scurried into a dangerous area with pace from the right, only to be denied by Lloris, while Dominguez thwarted Benzema, Olivier Giroud and Loic Remy. The deadlock-breaker never arrived, meaning France are joined by Switzerland in the Round of 16 and Ecuador’s challenge is at an end.