RIBEIRAO PRETO, Brazil – France's misfiring performance against Ecuador took some gloss off what had been a strong start from a team being touted as one of the outsiders to win the World Cup.
Although Wednesday's 0-0 draw may have worked in France's favor in terms of pressure — by tempering the rising expectation level after emphatic wins against Honduras and Switzerland — the players need to be more clinical in front of goal against Nigeria in their round-of-16 match.
"We'll simply have to put our chances away," striker Olivier Giroud said. "We were a bit hit and miss but we know what we can do."
France was much more miss than hit, failing to score from 20 shots — 13 of them on target — with Giroud himself squandering a late close-range header from a few yards out.
Coach Didier Deschamps' decision to make six changes from the side which beat Switzerland 5-2 resulted in a disjointed performance against Ecuador. But it also meant that the regulars left on the bench — notably in defense — will be well rested before facing Nigeria in what are likely to be hot and testing conditions.
"We're going to play at 1 p.m. We're going to have to adapt to the rhythm," Deschamps said, explaining that France will move forward its customary late-afternoon training sessions to lunchtime in order to be better prepared for Monday's game.
They will need to be given how Nigeria tested Argentina in Wednesday's 3-2 loss, with 21-year-old forward Ahmed Musa scoring twice.
"Nigeria is a solid, well-organized team," he said. "They defend well and they have a very good goalkeeper, quality and speed up front."
Musa's pace caused problems for Argentina's defense, but at least France now has prior warning.
Deschamps' decision to rest both his first-choice fullbacks: right back Mathieu Debuchy and left back Patrice Evra — may well prove to have been tactically astute, as they will need fresh legs to keep up with Musa and Emmanuel Emenike, who is a bustling, powerful forward.
Victory against Nigeria at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia will send France into a potential quarterfinal against Germany, the sort of speculative talk Deschamps doesn't like.
"I'm extremely happy with what we've done up until now, but it's not over yet," he said. "There's no point looking too far ahead."
The World Cup has sprung some surprises so far — France's positive start being one of them.
Defending champion Spain and European Championship runner-up Italy are already eliminated, as is Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. Wayne Rooney's England, meanwhile, didn't even win a game.
Deschamps feels proud of what France has done so far. Understandably, given the sorry state the team used to be in, and how far France's reputation fell at the 2010 World Cup, where the players went on a training strike.
"Some big teams have gone out but we're still here. It's been a quality World Cup and you needed to be at your best to qualify," he said. "It's great that our fans are euphoric. There were more than 10,000 of them (at the Maracana stadium on Wednesday). People need to feel this support, this fervor. They want to encourage the team."
Deschamps is sweating on the fitness of center half Mamadou Sakho, who limped off with a thigh injury for the second successive match. But Laurent Koscielny's composed performance against Ecuador's quick counterattacks gives Deschamps some decent backup.
Jerome Pugmire can be followed at www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire