LE HAVRE, France -- In a packed Stade Océane, full of passion first, of tension then and of pure joy at the end, France have qualified for the World Cup quarterfinals after their 2-1 win against Brazil in extra time Sunday night.
Les Bleues had never lost against Brazil (three wins and five draws) before this World Cup Round of 16 encounter, and they have kept their unbeaten run. Like in the past two World Cups, they have reached the last eight, which is the most important. But the French didn't play well and will have to do much better if they face the United States in the quarterfinals Friday.
Five takeaways from the France's victory against Brazil:
All about the mental
Once again, it was not pretty. Once again, the French players were far from their best level or far from what they could produce. But once again, they won a game in this World Cup thanks to their mental strength. Often, Brazil were the better side with more technical ability, more movement. However, the French were not going to crumble. They fought hard. They dug deep. That is also the analysis of Corinne Diacre, the France head coach.
"It was tense, very tense," she said. "We gave everything, we never gave up. We wore them down. I would have liked the players to play more, but we managed to find the resources to get the second goal."
The French rode their luck a bit as well when Griedge Mbock saved on her line or when Brazil lost Cristiane to injury. And then went through on a set piece, which has been their main asset all tournament so far with five of their nine goals scored on set pieces.
More flaws in France's play
Diacre decided to drop her playmaker, Gaétane Thiney, and replaced her by Viviane Asseyi, and to move from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-4-2. But it didn't make much difference. Like against Nigeria in the last group stage game, Les Bleues struggled to create chances and to put Brazil under pressure. They had only three shots on target in 120 minutes, zero in the first half. There was Kadidiatou Diani and that's pretty much it.
Attacking-wise, the PSG forward was the only one really bringing something. Valérie Gauvin scored (and had another one rightly ruled out by VAR) but was too isolated up front. Eugénie Le Sommer was too inconsistent on the left while Asseyi was poor on the right. There was little link-up play or build-up play. The French put more pressure during extra time but it was still not enough. We expected much more and much better from France.
The defence struggled
Until Sunday evening, France had not conceded a goal by an opponent. Wendie Renard put the ball in her own net against Norway, and that was it. The French defence looked the team's strongest asset going into this game. Yet, they struggled in Le Havre. Sarah Bouhaddi in goal had to make a special save on Cristiane's header in the second half and push the ball onto the crossbar. The Lyon goalkeeper was focused and strong all game.
But her back four was not up to the same level. Their line was terrible on the Brazilian goal with Mbock covering Debinha on Thaisa's goal. At least Mbock redeemed herself with a fantastic clearance on her line win during extra time. But Renard's yellow card was purely due to frustration and the centre back didn't have a good game.
The last World Cup game for Marta?
She didn't score and disappeared totally during extra time. Brazil even built their goal without her, but she was still at the heart of a lot of the good things the South Americans did. Her left foot is beautiful to watch and she is the boss on the pitch. One can only hope that she makes it to the next World Cup in 2023. She will be 37 then and it would be her sixth World Cup. With her talent and her leadership qualities, she could still be there. But four years is a long time in football.
And now, the U.S.?
In their hotel in Reims, the American players have watched this game with a lot of attention. If they beat Spain on Monday, they will face France in Paris at the Parc des Princes on Friday evening. Since the draw was made last December, everyone had ticked this date and the potential clash between the two main favourites of the tournament. One team is there already. Will the U.S. be there, too? They have to do the job on Monday and then we will have four days to get very excited about a very special game.
"We showed unity and solidarity," Mbock said. "We showed we are a team and that's how we will go all the way. Our strength is that we never doubt, even when we are not at our best. And this win will help us a lot for the quarterfinals."