Those who glanced at Group C in the build-up to this World Cup expected little more than a comfortable stroll for France in their first three games. The Euro 2016 runners-up may have cantered to a place at the finals in Russia by finishing top of their qualifying group, but the other three sides each required victory in a play-off to join them.
Denmark manager Age Hareide had tried his utmost to add intrigue and anticipation. “I don’t believe in this team,” he said last month. “The teams at the top of the world rankings are the best in the world, but this is not the case for France. I saw France against Sweden in Stockholm. They are nothing special.”
If that was the spark to light the touch paper between the two favourites to progress, it had long since burned out ahead of their meeting on Tuesday. A lazy, laborious 0-0 draw was played out between two teams content with sneaking quietly into the knockout stages instead of making a grand entrance.
Almost 36 years to the day of the Disgrace of Gijón, this was not quite a repeat. But it was certainly the Lullaby of Luzhniki. France and Denmark shared four shots on target and registered barely one combined burst of energy in 90 minutes.
The natural reaction is to blame the managers for choreographing this slow, painful dance. Hareide is a defensive tactician first and foremost, despite pre-match claims that “we don’t have a side we don’t have a side that works well with just parking the bus”.
Denmark had kept seven clean sheets in their last ten games, and deployed centre-half Andreas Christensen at the base of midfield in a formation with a lone striker. Andreas Cornelius cut a frustrated figure, with nine of his 25 touches being headers.
At least the Denmark boss has an overall outlook, a general approach. Didier Deschamps is no closer to finding a formula that works, nor even the most effective elements of those at his disposal. This was his 80th game as France manager – the most of any man in the post-war era – yet you would be forgiven for thinking this was only his eighth game in charge.
The experimentation that characterised stumbling wins over Australia and Peru was evident once more. Deschamps made six changes, with five players making their tournament debuts. Alphonse Areola, Adil Rami and Florian Thauvin are the only members of this squad yet to make an appearance. No country has used more players at this World Cup.
It led to a disjointed, disinterested display, but Deschamps is not entirely culpable. The 49-year-old might well have expected those given a start at a World Cup to repay his faith with an eye-catching performance, one worthy of forcing his hand in the knockout stages.
Steven N’Zonzi could have put pressure on Paul Pogba’s place with authority and creativity in midfield; he created one chance and did not complete a single tackle. Ousmane Dembélé could have staked his claim ahead of Kylian Mbappé; he was replaced by the teenager having barely made a mark in 77 minutes. Thomas Lemar could have put forward his argument for further opportunities; he was bright, but only in a dimly lit room.
Nabil Fekir was the only player to threaten this deepest of slumbers. He offered impetus and excitement in a fleeting 22-minute cameo, and was alone in emerging with credit.
Even Antoine Griezmann was forgettable, and Olivier Giroud regrettable. Given a rare chance to make a statement, these players offered little more than a whisper.
Hareide’s pre-match suggestion that Denmark would not play for the draw was a red herring, but his insistence that France are “nothing special” was unerringly accurate. They are unbeaten, still yet to concede from open play and have arguably the most talented squad in Russia, but there is a reason no-one is singing ‘Les Bleus’ just yet.
This was an example as to why it is not entirely the fault of Deschamps. He is still not the most suitable chef, but perhaps these ingredients have gone off too.