The World Cup Calendar, June 23rd. Vieira’s Va Va Voom

Admittedly, on the surface, this is not a vintage game. It was a comfortable 2-0 victory to France. Not an underdog win for the West Africans, not a cricket score for Les Bleus, but a professional, clinical 2-0 victory. So why am I writing about this game? Good question, valued reader. I am discussing this game because it was a catalyst. It was a catalyst for France to turn their campaign around. Prior to this game, they had drawn 0-0 against the Swiss and 1-1 against South Korea. This followed on from a diabolical 2002 World Cup and underwhelming Euro 2004 tournament. In this match against Togo, they had to win, and hope that Switzerland could beat South Korea. All France could do was win their match and pray that their fellow Europeans could do them a favour. A Patrick Vieira masterclass ensure that France did their part.

The early part of the game was dictated by David Trezeguet. The Juventus striker was running the Togolese defence ragged in the first half. Just three minutes in he controlled the ball on his chest on the penalty spot, turning and volleying the ball towards goal. It sailed just wide of the post, but was a sign of things to come.

Just a couple of minutes later and Trezeguet had another glorious chance. Young Marseille winger Franck Ribery cut back onto his right foot and whipped an inch-perfect cross onto the head of Trezeguet. This one came closer to the goal than his last, his header tipped over the crossbar by Kossi Agassa in the Togo goal. It was only six minutes into the game, but it was already obvious that France were intent on putting their lackadaisical performances of their previous games behind them.

A little later and Trezeguet had the ball in the back of the net, only for it to be ruled offside! Ribery played a quick pass, usurping his marker Dare Nibombe, to the feet of Trezeguet to tap in. He ran off in celebration, only to see the linesman’s flag raised. It was an onslaught from France early on. There was no doubt that they were going to win, but they needed the Swiss to do them a favour.

The news filtered through that Philippe Senderos had put Switzerland one up, and yet despite this gift, it was Togo who nearly took the lead in Cologne. Mohamed Kader dribbled alongside three French defenders, none of whom appeared confident in their abilities to close the player down. Kader ran closer and closer to the goal, eventually unleashing his shot towards Fabien Barthez. Barthez saved it, but not convincingly, the shot bobbling along the turf, only to be parried into no man’s land before being safely recovered.

The best chance of the first half fell the way of France. Patrick Vieira, in true Patrick Vieira form, took the game by the scruff of the neck, picking the ball up 30 yards from goal and launching a rocket towards goal. Agassa stopped the shot going in, but his unconventional save saw the ball bounce on the edge of the six-yard box, landing in perfect range for David Trezeguet to tap home. Trezeguet had the whole goal to aim for, yet somehow picked the legs of Agassa to fire towards. The ball went between Agassa’s legs, the sting taken out of the ball, and he recovered to save.

It was a minor miracle that Togo were still in the match at half-time. The miracle ended ten minutes after the half. Ribery broke into the Togolese box with pace, delicately sliding his pass along to Vieira, a star of Arsenals Invincibles of a few years previously. Vieira took a big touch away from the defence, using his large frame to shield the ball. He turned and mid spin struck the ball hard and high beyond Agassa and into the net. Switzerland were winning, France were winning. France were in pole position to qualify.

It was Patrick Vieira’s birthday on June 23rd, but it was him who ended up gifting his teammate Thierry Henry a gift. A long ball from Claude Makélélé into the box was flicked down off the head of Vieira and into the path of Henry. Henry turned past Massamasso Tchangai and slotted the ball under the goalkeeper. The way France’s tournament had been going, their 1-0 looked shaky. A 2-0 lead was insurmountable.

The last half hour was remarkably unremarkable. Rather than pushing for a third and risk getting caught out by a quick Togo counter attack against an ageing French defence, France sat back, passing the ball about with ease, ensuring no mistake was made. With fifteen minutes to go, the French fans started to celebrate wildly. This had nothing to do with the match they were viewing, but rather the news that Switzerland were 2-0 up. After a turbulent start to the 2006 World Cup, France had negotiated their way through the group.

It would not be an easy route to the final. If France had played to expectations, they’d have topped the group and played Ukraine in the Round of 16. Instead, they played a rampant Spain team. And won. Then they played favourites Brazil. And won. Then it was an energetic Portugal team. France won. Then it was an Italian team who were tight at the back, and, well, we all know how that went.

The purpose of discussing Togo v France was not the quality of that game, but the importance. France turned a corner in that game. It was an absolute must win, and though they made hard work of it, and David Trezeguet missed approximately a thousand chances in that game, they won. And they won without Zinedine Zidane. They needed men to step up in the absence of their captain, and Patrick Vieira did just that. It was a dominating performance from the Frenchman, he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and dragged his teammates over the finish line.

Tomorrow’s game: June 24th. Italy v Uruguay. 2014.