With eight goals in the 'for' column and having served up some lovely attacking interplay, France's front line of Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud and Co has earned plaudits aplenty from the outset at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The last time Les Bleus had been this prolific at this stage of the tournament was way back in 1958. Until Blerim Dzemaili's 81st-minute strike, Didier Deschamps's side even looked on course to surpass the country's biggest win at the World Cup, dating back to the 7-3 thrashing of Paraguay 56 years ago. But what derailed this potential new record? The departure of centre-half Mamadou Sakho through injury undisputedly had a role to play.
"I felt some pain after going in for a tackle, but I'm OK. I'm going to have a good rest and then tomorrow the medical staff will examine me to see exactly what the situation is," the defender tells FIFA.com, the broad grin on his face instantly dispelling any fears that the problem is anything serious. "It's true that we backed off a bit; we dropped our level somewhat and Switzerland really had a go. We went on to concede twice and all credit to them, but we played our game and stayed focused from beginning to end, and that's what we should take away from the match."
The team are looking strong: it's always easier when everyone on the team is fully committed to doing their bit defensively
The Liverpool stopper makes a convincing case and Switzerland's two goals should not detract from the quality of France's performance. It would be unfair to dwell on these minor hiccups or to point the finger at Laurent Koscielny, who put in a combative display after coming on. Nevertheless, it is hard not to draw a link between the piercing of the French rearguard and Sakho being taken off, as until that point he and his fellow young commander Raphael Varane had run an impressively tight ship at the back.
Age is just a number
"I don't think composure only comes with age. Personally speaking it's something I've always had; I think it's something natural," reflects Varane, 21, in an interview with FIFA.com. "Mamadou and I just try to do our best for the team. It was a fantastic performance, we put them under a lot of pressure and played with a lot of intensity. When I say 'we', I'm talking about the whole team, not just us centre-backs." True as that may be, despite France having racked up a 3-0 lead by half-time – something Les Bleus hadn't managed at the World Cup since 1978 – it was the two men at the heart of defence who took centre stage.
The young pair took no prisoners at the back, as epitomised by the crunching challenge in which Sakho picked up his knock. On top of that, they had an impact going forward, with Varane the architect behind France's third goal, playing a fantastic ball into space for Giroud, who then crossed for Mathieu Valbuena to fire into the empty net. "It's true that our partnership was on song, but it was a great display across the board," Sakho stresses. "The team are looking strong: it's always easier when everyone on the team is fully committed to doing their bit defensively."
Being able to call on such a talented couple of central defenders certainly helps, too. Having tried out various different combinations before giving the pair their first outing together in the second leg of the Brazil 2014 play-off against Ukraine, in Sakho and Varane Didier Deschamps has found a pair who dovetail superbly. While the former is a feisty, rugged left-footer, the latter is a right-footer with a rangy frame and a cool head. Together, they form a wall that is extremely hard to breach: "We get on very well both on and off the pitch, but I don't think the focus should be on our partnership," Varane hammers home. Any team looking to taste victory against France, however, will have to do just that in order to find a way past the pair.