By TIM FONTENAULT
Vincent Enyeama has been one of the best goalkeepers at the FIFA World Cup, and he was remarkable again in the Round of 16 on Monday afternoon. Unfortunately for Enyeama and Nigeria, one mistake proved fatal and ended could have been the biggest upset of the tournament.
Enyeama ran into the middle of the penalty area on a corner kick in the 79th minute and tried to knock the ball away in a crowd of players. He deflected the ball right to the head of France midfielder Paul Pogba, who had been denied by Enyeama from point-blank range earlier in the match. Pogba headed the ball into the unguarded net to give France their first goal in a 2-0 win that sends them to the World Cup quarterfinals.
The scoreline does not paint a clear picture of a match that was as even as any other match in the tournament so far, as Nigeria gave France, one of the top sides in the World Cup to this point, everything they had.
Nigeria looked the better side early on and nearly took the lead in the 19th minute. Emmanuel Emenike poked a shot past France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris after a great through ball from Ahmed Musa, but the goal was called back for offsides. Less than half of Emenike’s body was beyond the last defender, but the linesman caught it and raised his flag immediately.
France and Nigeria traded chances throughout the match, and France’s best first-half chance came three minutes after Emenike was ruled offsides. Mathieu Valbuena played a ball into the box for Pogba, who fired a shot at Enyeama. The Super Eagles’ goalkeeper was unnerved, lunging to his left to knock away what would have been a goal.
The second half was more of the same from the two sides. Both teams had their chances, excellent chances at that. Nigeria’s best opportunity came with about 25 minutes to play, when Peter Odemwingie, who had been dangerous throughout the World Cup, ripped a shot at Lloris from just outside the box. Lloris went to ground to make the stop, but Nigeria’s best chance did not necessarily pose too much of a threat for France.
France, on the other hand, had Enyeama standing on his head. Karim Benzema nearly put the French ahead twice in the second half. The first effort was a point-blank header that Enyeama had to react quickly to and push over the bar. After that, Benzema had a shot from nearly the same spot stopped by a diving effort from Enyeama, but the ball ricocheted of Benzema’s leg and spun back toward the goal. Just before it would have crossed the line, Nigeria cleared it away.
Finally the breakthrough came for France. Enyeama’s lone mistake of the tournament allowed Pogba to head the ball in easily. After that, it looked like Nigeria had given up.
In the 91st minute, with Nigeria already resigned to the fact that they were going home, put a second goal on the board for France. There was a lapse in communication between Enyeama and Joseph Yobo as they both went for a ball against Antonie Griezmann. The ball hit off of Yobo’s leg and went into the goal.
France advances to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2006 and will play either Germany or Algeria, the lone African team remaining, on Saturday.