Morgan Schneiderlin is developing a real talent for confounding expectations. A surprise name among the seven France players originally put on 2014 FIFA World Cup™ standby, the midfielder was then drafted into Didier Deschamps's squad when the injured Clement Grenier withdrew, but perhaps the most dazzling twist of all came on Wednesday. A shock starter in place of Rio Mavuba for France's meeting with Ecuador, the 24-year-old responded with an impeccable display over the full 90 minutes, catching many off guard with his palpable talent.
The Alsace native was one of the brightest performers for *Les Bleus *as they sealed a spot in the last 16. Completing 65 of his 70 attempted passes, he also snuffed out a moment of danger from Antonio Valencia on the stroke of half-time, put in a number of vital tackles and fired over with an extravagant volley 18 minutes from time. Positioned as a shield in front of the defence, Schneiderlin played a key role in keeping Ecuador at bay as France kept a clean sheet.
"I tried to do my best," the Southampton man told FIFA. "It had been a month since I'd played competitively, so I had to get back into the rhythm and feel my way into the match, but overall it went well. I'm a perfectionist, though, and despite my huge pride in having started the game, given that it's the World Cup, what I most remember is the ball I lost at the end which could have been dangerous. Tiredness is no excuse. That's the kind of mistake I absolutely have to cut out and which shows how much progress I still have to make."
Behind his admirable modesty, the truth is that Schneiderlin has already made incredible strides. After a testing start to his career with Strasbourg, where he made just five Ligue 1 appearances between 2006 and 2008, he took a gamble by moving to England to join Southampton. The Saints slipped into the third tier the following season, but Schneiderlin and his club stuck at their task, climbing through the divisions one by one before establishing themselves as a stable Premier League force. The tireless French midfielder has been instrumental in their rise, and was voted Southampton's player of the season this term after averaging 4.1 tackles per game – the second highest ratio in the league behind Lucas Leiva.
A fan favourite at St Mary's Stadium, Schneiderlin is held in genuine esteem by the south-coast outfit, who finished the 2013/14 campaign in eighth place. Indeed, as their player took to the pitch against La Tri at the Maracana, Southampton dedicated their official Twitter output to his performance, commenting on practically his every touch of the ball. That speaks volumes for Schneiderlin's standing in the English game, and yet he remained an almost unknown quantity in his homeland before the action began at Brazil 2014.
"What's happening to me is incredible, but playing here is obviously a dream come true for any player, not just me," he said. "I'd heard so many things about the stadium, but I had to put all of that out of my mind and focus on the football. I'm a little disappointed that we didn't win, but what matters most is that we qualified for the Round of 16 and finished first in the group.
"You can't win every match 5-2 or 3-0," he added. "Against Ecuador, all that was missing was a goal to make it a perfect day's work. Now we have to focus on the game against Nigeria, which isn't going to be easy. But despite the goalless draw, our performance against Ecuador will help us go into that match full of confidence." Les Bleus will also head into the game with Yohan Cabaye available again after suspension, which ought to leave the No22 back on the sidelines. In fact, his chances of making another appearance in the tournament are by no means certain – but, as he has shown so often in the past, with Schneiderlin you can never rule out a fresh surprise.