OUR MAN IN BRAZIL
Watch out for France, Belgium
They may be inexperienced, but have spirit, tenacity and plenty of guts
Published on Jun 27, 2014 12:33 PM
THEY have been relatively under the radar, with attention focused more on the spectacular exits of Spain and England and the Luis Suarez incident.
In fact, both France manager Didier Deschamps and Belgium head coach Marc Wilmots would not have preferred it any other way for their inexperienced squads.
But, as the World Cup enters the knockout stages, the spotlight will soon turn to France and Belgium - and the two could spring a surprise or two in Brazil.
The French progressed to the last 16 as Group E leaders, albeit following a lacklustre 0-0 draw with Ecuador on Wednesday that earned them a date with Nigeria in the first knock-out round.
And, while Deschamps has been criticised in some quarters for fielding a weakened side against Ecuador, thus halting the free-scoring Les Bleus machine that had bagged eight goals in two matches, it was designed with bigger things in mind.
"I could put out the same team every time, but then it would be pointless having the other players here," said Deschamps, who captained the French to World Cup glory at France '98.
"I have confidence in all 23 players and we needed to find the right balance between preserving some who have played a lot of games and making sure that others who we may require later on are in good condition."
He made six changes in the Ecuador game, giving players such as striker Antoine Griezmann (who replaced Olivier Giroud) and Morgan Schneiderlin (for the suspended Yohan Cabaye) a rare run-out.
Even brief outings build confidence in young players and Deschamps knows that these fringe players will now have at least overcome any first-match jitters they may have had - which could prove crucial for a team short on World Cup experience.
Only Patrice Evra, Hugo Lloris, Mathieu Valbuena and Bacary Sagna have survived the great Deschamps cull from the disastrous 2010 campaign in which Les Bleus made the headlines for infighting, player revolt and an embarrassing first-round exit.
But Deschamps reckons his decision to leave out players who could disrupt team harmony - Samir Nasri being the most high-profile example - is the right approach.
"I won't use the term 'zero tolerance' but, with what happened, French supporters attach as much importance to the result as to behaviour," he had said before the tournament.
Beyond a very winnable round-of-16 match against Nigeria, the French could potentially set up a clash with Germany in the quarter-finals.
The two times France progressed past the group stage at the last four tournaments, they reached the final (in 1998 and 2006).
In fact, comparisons are being drawn to the 1998 winning team, who also started with a bang, scoring nine goals in the group stage.
Deschamps, while coy on talk of his squad as potential winners just yet, admitted that there are similarities between the side he captained and the one he is managing now.
"It is the same thing that we saw in 1998, while we cannot compare each changing room, I have a very focused group at present, they have a mindset that they want to maintain, even those who play less, there is a force that is rising," said the former midfield hardman.
"(While) this is not a guarantee of success, in addition to our qualities this mindset is very important."
Wilmots is also relying on a positive dressing room to see how far this new generation of Belgium stars can go - despite the absence of experience.
Boasting the likes of Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard, it is hard to fathom that not one of the current squad has played at the Finals of the World Cup or European Championship as Belgian football sank into a dark age between 2002 and 2010.
But, with qualification guaranteed just two matches into the group stage, after coming back from a goal down to win 2-1 against Algeria and eking out a drab 1-0 victory over Russia, Wilmots is convinced that his side have shown tenacity and maturity, even though it was not in the most convincing of ways.
He said: "It's not about being beautiful - but about being effective.
"Belgium are through to the next round and that is what counts. We are tactically very disciplined and we needed to be patient."
Like France, they too should have a good chance of progressing from the round of 16 - which would then set up a likely clash with Argentina.
All eyes will definitely be on them then as these two sleeping European giants go in search of a new dawn.