The World Cup has once again thrown up a curious mix of incentives, and France find themselves in an odd spot. With six points from the first two games, getting out of the group is secure, and anything less than a 4-0 defeat here will at least see the side finish second.
Winning the group would see Les Bleues face a third place finisher in the round of 16, but a potentially brutal quarter final against the United States could await. Would it be better for France to lose this game and get an easier run of games? How you feel about this might say more about you than the World Cup.
Many will argue that momentum is what matters, and building confidence with another win will help propel this side to a World Cup win. On the other hand, the risk of going out to the US in the quarter finals would be an embarrassing end for a France side tipped by many to win this home tournament. It seems unlikely that the French would just completely throw this game. It would not be a surprise, though, to see a few players rested for the knockout stage.
For Nigeria, the calculations are much more straightforward. Win or draw and they are sure to make it into the next round. Despite dramatic scorelines of a 3-0 loss to Norway followed by a 2-0 win over South Korea, in both games the performances have been close fought contests, with expected goals models having Nigeria largely even in each fixture.
In the forward line, the standout player has probably been Asisat Oshoala. The Barcelona Femení winger is comfortable on either flank and currently ranks as the outstanding individual of the side on a per minute basis according to Twelve’s model, with the second goal against South Korea being her most decisive contribution.
Trying to predict what France will do in this game feels especially fraught considering the incentives. In terms of changes, Eugénie Le Sommer is on a yellow card, so she would surely be the most obvious player to swap out. She leads France in terms of points accrued in Twelve’s model, so while it may be a loss for this game, they would surely want to keep her available in the knockout stages.
Elsewhere, you have outfielders Wendie Renard, Marion Torrent, Armandine Henry, Kadidiatou Diani, Élise Bussaglia and Griedge Mbock Bathy all having played every minute of France’s campaign so far. Manager Corinne Diacre does have the depth to make wholesale changes if she wants to, but considering how settled the core of the side has been over the past two games, it may just be a few cosmetic changes.
Considering Gaëtane Thiney and Valérie Gauvin were both substituted late against Norway, these two might actually be the most likely to retain their starting places, particularly Gauvin as she missed the first match. With a goal already this tournament, another good performance here could secure her position as first choice into the knockout stages.
The impulse to say that France should deliberately tank here is strong. That said, most players and managers tend to be uncomfortable thinking in these terms and prefer to maintain a winning mentality, even as those of us who look at football from a more analytical perspective wince. Expect France to attempt to win the game, though it’s possible that the players will not be as focused as usual with the stakes lower.
This could give Nigeria a greater opportunity, as the Super Falcons will surely go all out to get a result here. The betting markets give France an implied probability of 87-97% to win this game, and under normal circumstances this would be entirely reasonable. The peculiar circumstances of the last game in the group, though, mean that things could be different, and we could see a more even contest than many expect.