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Soccer-Toothless France top group as 10-man Ecuador go out

Reuters

* France top group E (Adds quotes)

By Simon Evans

RIO DE JANEIRO, June 25 (Reuters) - A second-string France side clinched top spot in World Cup Group E while Ecuador, who had captain Antonio Valencia harshly sent off, were eliminated after a sprightly 0-0 draw at the Maracana stadium on Wednesday.

Switzerland, who beat Honduras 3-0 to finish runners-up, will play Argentina in the last 16 while the French will face Nigeria.

Ecuador, who had to play most of the second half with 10 men after Valencia's dismissal in the 50th minute, became the only one of the six South American sides not to progress.

France topped the group with seven points while Switzerland finished on six, Ecuador ended with four and Honduras none.

With little pressure on France, who were all but assured of a place in the second round, coach Didier Deschamps made six changes to his starting lineup.

It was not a performance that will have excited France's fans but Deschamps was delighted to reach the knockout stage.

"Nothing will spoil our satisfaction tonight. We were there to qualify for the last 16 and we finished top of the group. We were up against a team that was strong in defence even with 10 men," he said.

Ecuador knew they needed a victory to have any hope of progressing but they struggled to create many chances in the first half and then had to attack with a numerical disadvantage.

Ecuador coach Reinaldo Ruedo said Antonio Valencia's sending off had cost his team dearly.

"It was a pity all that happened. I am very respectful of referees and it is now a done deal that we can do nothing about," he said.

"But we lost a very important man for our structure, the most experienced and one who means a lot for Ecuador, and we suffered," he said.

EARLY EXCHANGES

A relaxed-looking France team had the better of the early exchanges, but it was not until the 38th minute that they truly threatened when Ecuador keeper Alexander Dominguez, who had an outstanding game, tipped over a powerful header from Paul Pogba.

Ecuador's only first half opportunity came when Michael Arroyo burst down the left flank and Enner Valencia met his cross with a downward header which was blocked by the feet of France keeper Hugo Lloris.

France almost broke the deadlock shortly after the interval when Bacary Sagna crossed from the right and Antoine Griezmann's volley bounced off Dominguez on to the post.

Ecuador's hopes suffered a major blow, though, moments later when Antonio Valencia was sent off for a challenge on Lucas Digne which left the France left back needing treatment.

Valencia played the ball and caught Digne with his follow-through and, while there was little protest from the French players, Ivorian referee Noumandiez Doue brandished the red card.

The decision appeared to galvanise Ecuador and they should have had the lead when Cristian Noboa was put through by Enner Valencia but he lost his balance and screwed a shot wide.

Pogba missed a great chance for France in the 73rd minute when, unmarked at the back post, he headed wide.

With Switzerland beating Honduras, Ecuador knew a draw was not enough and substitute Alex Ibarra forced a good save out of Lloris in the 82nd while at the other end Karim Benzema went close for France.

There were tears in the eyes of the Ecuador players as they stood on the field at the end of a World Cup campaign which had promised so much more. (Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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