|City||Rio de Janeiro|
|Stadium||Estádio do Maracanã|
Juan Carlos Paredes
The goals came so easy, and so often, for France in its first two games at the World Cup that one could be forgiven for assuming it might never end. Three against Honduras. Five against Switzerland.
When the well went dry in a scoreless tie against Ecuador on Wednesday, there were bound to be questions. Just do not bring them to France's coach, Didier Deschamps. Unbeaten and safely in the second round as the first-place team in his group, he was not really interested in hearing them.
"We're in the last 16, which was our objective," Deschamps said. "It's going to take more than a draw to stop me from feeling happy about that."
France won Group E with 7 points — two dominant wins and Wednesday's sleepy, sometimes sloppy tie — to advance to the knockout rounds. Switzerland claimed the second spot by virtue of a 3-0 rout of Honduras in Manaus.
Second place came with a price for the Swiss: They will face Lionel Messi and Argentina in the Round of 16 on Tuesday in São Paulo. France earned the less daunting task of a date with Nigeria in Brasília on Monday. But it will need to be sharper there.
"We had an enormous amount of chances, and we were a bit disappointed that we were not as effective tonight," Deschamps said.
With midfielder Yohan Cabaye suspended, Deschamps took the opportunity to make six changes to his starting lineup from the Switzerland game. Among the most noticeable was the return of the talented young central midfielder Paul Pogba, who had started the opening game and then came on as a substitute in the second.
Only 21, Pogba is 6 feet 2 inches of potential. Manchester United saw this early, luring him to England as a 16-year-old after he impressed Manager Alex Ferguson with the skills he was showing for France's youth teams.
But Pogba walked away from United in 2012 amid a contract dispute and later traded accusations of disrespect with Ferguson, who admitted he was happy to see Pogba go. Now Pogba plays for Juventus, and on Wednesday he had a chance to show that France could rely on him if it is to go on a deep run in Brazil.
Pogba created a half-dozen excellent chances but flubbed just as many in a performance that matched France's in its unevenness. Every dangerous shot he took was matched by one right at a defender, every silky through ball countered by one off a defender's heel, or another left just a bit short or hit just a hair too long.
Pogba produced what was probably the game's best chance when he rose to meet a corner kick in the 38th minute, but his header was within reach of goalkeeper Alexander Domínguez, who tipped it over the crossbar.
Given huge space to work in during the first half, Pogba got even more in the second after the Ecuador winger Antonio Valencia was shown a straight red card for stepping on the leg of left back Lucas Digne. But neither Pogba nor his teammates could take advantage.
By the 70th minute, Pogba, clearly frustrated, had begun shouting at himself after every missed pass, every shot sent wide, high or — in one embarrassing case — skied off toward the corner flag. Deschamps was eager to look past it all.
"We just didn't score any goals," he said. "Football is a show, and to have a real good show you have to score goals, and we didn't score goals tonight."
That may do little to calm the nerves in France, where expectations have risen after a disastrous 2010 World Cup in which the players mutinied against their coach, refused to practice one day and eventually slunk home in disgrace after a first-round exit. The flurry of goals in the first two games lifted hopes that the team might be on its way back to the top, so some coaches might use Wednesday's tie, which had some at Estádio do Maracanã booing, as a chance to temper those expectations.
"No, no, let them be happy; let them be happier," Deschamps said of the French fans. "It's not my job to tell them, 'Hey, cool down; we're not that good.' It's up to us to keep that up."