With only the two goals over 90 minutes against a team not considered favourites, France was far from the team we saw score five goals in the first 45 minutes against Italy on Sunday, a 5-1 win for France. The threat against Belgium was there, as were the chances -- and, to be fair, France should have had more goals, especially the penalty (and the rebound) missed by Wendie Renard in the 90th minute.
This victory against Belgium means that Les Bleues are through to the quarterfinals and are certain to top their group. The first part of their mission is indeed achieved. However, there were not too many smiles on the French's faces after the final whistle. The job was done, of course -- yet it should have been done in a much better way.
The efficiency that the French team demonstrated against the Squadra Azzurra -- five goals off seven shots on target and an expected goals of 3.90 -- was nowhere to be seen this time. Against the Belgians, Corinne Diacre's players ended the match with 26 shots, seven on target and an expected goals of 3.36. Yet, they only scored twice!
There was less spark from the French side on Thursday, and Belgium scored on their only shot of the whole game, which says a lot of this French team defensively. The contrast between their attack and their defence is striking -- it is part of this team's DNA, their strength and their weakness -- and it was clear to see again on Thursday. Compare that to the other Euro 2022 frontrunners like England and Germany who have dominated their opponents without conceding yet.
France's attacking talent is without a doubt right up there with the best in Europe. We saw Kadidiatou Diani with her pace and her well-taken goal against Belgium. We saw Marie-Antoinette Katoto with all her power and movement against Italy. Delphine Cascarino has pace and skills. Grace Geyoro has pretty much everything, too. And then you still have Ouleymata Sarr, Sandy Baltimore, Melvin Malard and even Kenza Dali on the bench. So much firepower, so much pace, skills, chemistry, movement, flair.
If France goes all the way in this tournament, it will be because their attack overwhelms the opposition defence. They have that potential -- they can cause problems against anyone. Diani has grown into one of the best wingers in the game. Katoto has 26 goals in 32 caps and is part of the top strikers in Europe. Cascarino is still a bit too cautious at times but she is starting to take more responsibility. This is a front three as strong as you will find in Europe.
However, the injury of Katoto on Thursday, a knee problem which she felt already at training on Wednesday, could be a huge blow. We will have to wait before knowing the exact extent of the damage, but France without Katoto is not the same and certainly not a title contender anymore. Sarr is her replacement and is a good player, but she is simply not as good as the Paris Saint-Germain striker.
And Katoto's absence is not the only worry at the moment. Defensively, France are not ready yet, and they still might not be ready for when they face really tough teams later in the tournament. The way Belgium scored against them with a ball over the top on Eve Perisset's side, a little reverse pass that caught Griedge Mbock and Renard being too slow to react, again, is a concern.
The old adage says that you win big tournaments with your defence. It certainly applied to the French men's teams in 1998 and 2018. But this French squad is not strong enough in the back for the moment. Against Italy, they conceded a huge chance at 0-0 after four minutes and then let their opponents take 13 shots, including 6 on target. Italy's expected goals that night was only 1.25, but the danger was there.
The indication that Diacre herself is struggling to find the right formula defensively is that she changed her centre-back pairing from the first game to the second. Renard had Aissatou Tounkara alongside her against Italy before Mbock started against Belgium. Neither partnership was convinced, though.
What would happen against better players and better teams? There is time to work on the defence before the quarter finals next week. It is not a quick fix, though, and it might be the limit for this team and this generation.
For now, they will enjoy a win on France's National Day. Their dream is still on, of course, but the narrow win against Belgium and Katoto's injury have dampened the mood a little bit.