In Tournament Packed With Goals, France Stuffs in Five More

France's 5-2 victory against Switzerland was merely the latest indication in this delightful FIFA World Cup that defenders no longer rule.

Updated: June 21, 2014 09:00 IST
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Karim Benzema scores
Exquisite beauty! Karim Benzema was his 'poetic' best as he helped France beat Switzerland.

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Salvador: It was a gorgeous, ruthless finish from Karim Benzema: a perfectly timed swing of the right leg on the move from the French striker that put the ball into the upper left corner of the Switzerland goal.

The problem was that it did not count, with referee Bjorn Kuipers indicating that he had blown the final whistle just before Benzema pounced.

On a normal night and in a normal World Cup, this could have been pivotal, at the very least a source of heated debate, but at this stage it only produced Gallic shrugs.

Everyone - except for Swiss players and fans - already had seen or scored enough goals to feel satisfied.

So it has gone all over Brazil, and France's 5-2 victory on this steamy Friday night was merely the latest indication in this delightful World Cup that defenders no longer rule.

Through 26 games, there have been 77 goals, very nearly three per game: far ahead of the 2.27 average for the entire 2010 tournament. Salvador's atmospheric Arena Fonte Nova, situated among the hills and favelas, has been the biggest goal magnet, with 17 goals scored in only three games.

"It's a stadium that inspires goals; it must be," said the French manager, Didier Deschamps. "This is a World Cup that is open with lots and lots of rhythm. I haven't seen all the matches, but I've seen quite a few. And with the heat and the rhythm, it's asking a lot of players physically."

Still, it came as a surprise to see Benzema and his teammates, once so close to missing this competition altogether, pile up goal after goal against a team that was supposed to be difficult to break down under the experienced eye of German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld.

But Hitzfeld, who postponed retirement to coach this team, certainly did not like what he saw Friday.

"It was truly a bleak day for us; we were not able to reach our full potential," he said.

It did not help that key defender Steve von Bergen was knocked out of the game in the ninth minute after Olivier Giroud, back in the French starting lineup, caught him in the face with a high kick. His replacement in central defense, Philippe Senderos, did not prove particularly reliable.

But there was much more to this rout. In 10 World Cup qualifying games in an admittedly weak group, Switzerland allowed only six goals. On Friday, the team allowed three in the first half alone, including two in just two minutes.

Giroud scored France's opening goal on a leaping header in the 17th minute. Then, after a Swiss defensive lapse, Blaise Matuidi ran onto a well-placed pass from Benzema and beat goalkeeper Diego Benaglio to the near post, which, with all due respect to Matuidi, was not a place Benaglio should have allowed himself to be beaten.

But there was no need to quibble over such details for long. France would have plenty more highlight material to savor and soon. In the 40th minute, Giroud chased down a through ball from defender Raphael Varane, dribbled unencumbered down the left wing and then delivered a low and lovely cross that Mathieu Valbuena met on the stretch with his right foot.

That made the score 3-0, and it would get to 5-0 after second-half goals from Benzema and Moussa Sissoko before the Swiss struck back to score two late goals in the final 10 minutes: the first on a free kick from Blerim Dzemaili and the second from Granit Xhaka after a pass over the French defense, which did not look nearly as solid after central defender Mamadou Sakho limped off with a leg problem in the 66th minute.

By the time Switzerland scored, the joyous bloc of French fans already had produced two a cappella renditions of "La Marseillaise," and the French fans back home in Marseilles and elsewhere already had celebrated plenty in front of their television screens.

Their team - a pariah after its fractious, feeble performance in 2010 - has scored eight goals in two games, beating Honduras, 3-0, in Porto Alegre last week. And though the French are skeptical by nature, the excited tone of some of the postmatch questions already had Deschamps doing his best to maintain perspective.

"I don't want to put the brakes on what's happening outside," he said, referring to French fans. "Because for a long time, we kept encouraging them to support us. So I'm not going to stop them, and inside the team, there's a lot of satisfaction. But we're not getting overexcited. We're lucid. We have six points. That was the goal."

France still has not qualified for the second round, but it looks like a lock. The team risks elimination only if it loses to Ecuador by a big margin in both teams' final group game on Wednesday, and Switzerland beats Honduras by a lopsided score.

"It's been good," Deschamps said. "A great spectacle for those in the stands and for those in front of the television, too."

© 2014 New York Times News Service

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