By William Schomberg, David Ljunggren and Angus MacSwan
France seek to extend their rampant start to the World Cup on Wednesday when they need a point against Ecuador to secure top spot in Group E and further banish the memories of their implosion four years ago.
However, second-placed Ecuador will be desperate to pull off a shock win over the resurgent former world champions as they seek to book their own spot in the knockout stages ahead of Switzerland, who trail them on goal difference, and Honduras.
France lead the group with six points, followed by Ecuador and Switzerland on three points with Honduras bottom with no points after two defeats.
A win or draw for France would mean they will probably avoid meeting Argentina in their first knockout round match.
France coach Didier Deschamps has transformed the national team from the bad boys of the 2010 tournament in South Africa into a side drawing comparisons with the World Cup-winning side of 1998 on home soil.
In contrast to the lack of discipline four years ago, when the players went on strike and France were knocked out in the first stage, Deschamps has stamped his authority on the team, leaving top players on the bench when he sees the need.
The match at the Maracana will showcase some of the most eye-catching attacking footballers at the World Cup.
France, with eight goals in their first two games, are joint top scorers at the tournament so far along with the Netherlands.
France’s Karim Benzema and Ecuador’s Enner Valencia are among the individual joint top scorers of the tournament with three goals each in two games.
Switzerland meanwhile meet Honduras seeking to banish bad memories of 2010, when they scraped a goalless draw against the same opponents and crashed out early.
Switzerland manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, trying to repair his team’s spirit after their 5-2 thumping against France in the previous game, dismissed questions about the parallels with four years ago.
Just as in 2010, the two sides are meeting in their final group game. Four years ago a Swiss win by a two-goal margin would have taken them into the second round.
Hitzfeld said it was no use making comparisons “because we are going to win. It’s as simple as that. The team today has more offensive potential”.
After underwhelming early performances, traditional Latin American top dogs Argentina and reigning African champions Nigeria have something to prove when they meet in their final World Cup Group F match on Wednesday.
Argentina were among the favourites going in to the tournament but despite a much-vaunted front four, they have yet to come alive, with the exception of some moments of match-winning magic from Lionel Messi.
Nigeria, representing Africa’s richest and most populous nation, have also laboured to convince as a team.
Nonetheless, Argentina sit atop Group F with six points thanks to their less-than-emphatic wins over Bosnia and Iran.
The Sky Blues have already qualified for the Round of 16 but will still want finish first to ensure an easier opponent – in principle at least – in the next stage.
Nigeria have four points following a dull draw with Iran and a win over first-timers Bosnia. A draw would be enough to ensure qualification but a loss to Argentina could put them in trouble.
Iran, who surprised many with their tenacious, bold play against Argentina, could still seize second place if they beat Bosnia and rack up a better goal difference.
So a game that could see as much anxiety as adventure is on the cards.
Messi’s sublime strike against Iran in stoppage time in Belo Horizonte only highlighted the danger of Argentina relying on the Barcelona man too much. It wasn’t supposed to be like that.
He and his fellow strikers Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria form what should have been one of the most formidable attack forces in the tournament, but so far it has been rather blunt.
The defence has also looked shaky, with central defender Ezekiel Garay repeatedly caught off guard against Iran.
“We have a few causes for concern,” head coach Alejandro Sabella admitted after the close-shave against Iran.
Argentina will be able to count on fervent support – tens of thousands of fans are expected to flood over the border into the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, a region which shares its gaucho culture but harbours an intense football rivalry.
Nigeria may take heart from the fact that they made a slow start in the African Nations Cup before going on to take the title last year.
The Super Eagles cannot afford to give anything away at the back but will need to hunt for goals if they are to be sure of qualifying for the Round of 16 for the first time since 1998.
Playing in their fifth World Cup, Nigeria’s performance against Bosnia was an improvement on the Iran game, when they look bereft of ideas. But their defensive frailties were exposed on several occasions and that could prove fatal with a hungry wolf like Messi on the prowl.