It only lasted for a few minutes but suddenly France rediscovered their attacking verve and Nigeria succumbed.
Les Blues coach Didier Deschamps had spoken in the build-up of the difficulty in replicating group stage form amid the tense atmosphere of knockout football and his prophecy proved right.
France laboured for long periods with Karim Benzema shunted out to the left to accommodate Olivier Giroud as the focal point of their attack and it was only when the Arsenal striker was withdrawn after 63 minutes that Deschamps’ side sprang into life.
Although Mathieu Valbuena did his best to kickstart France with frequent ingenuity from the right, there was a better shape to France’s forward play once Antoine Griezmann was introduced out wide in an attacking trio, with Benzema reverting to the middle.
They exerted sufficient pressure to force passage into the quarter-finals but still needed an awful mistake from the otherwise excellent Vincent Enyeama to break the deadlock, allowing the outstanding Paul Pogba to convert a simple 79th-minute header.
Nigeria were crestfallen thereafter and France’s second goal – an unfortunate stoppage-time own goal from captain Joseph Yobo after Griezmann missed his kick – was harsh on the Super Eagles, who had threatened to cause an upset in Brasilia with a defiant display.
History was against them having never been beyond this stage at a World Cup but they enjoyed the support of the locals, who chanted “Ni-ger-ia” throughout the game and frequently whistled France’s patient play.
Luck was also not on their side as Giroud was alleged to have elbowed John Obi Mikel in the first half and Blaise Matuidi should have been sent off for an awful challenge on Ogenyi Onazi, who was carried off. At that stage, the game was goalless and Nigeria were in the ascendancy.
France 2 Nigeria 0 player ratings
France 2 Nigeria 0 player ratings
1/23 France: Hugo Lloris
The Tottenham stopper was always there when his country needed him, producing a string of fine saves. 7
2/23 Mathieu Debuchy
The right-back once again seemed more convincing in attack than when defending. 6
3/23 Patrice Evra
A typically steady performance from the Manchester United left-back. 6
4/23 Raphael Varane
Constantly impressive in the air, but the Real Madrid twice lost concentration with balls played in behind the defence. 7
5/23 Laurent Koscielny
Was kept busy by Emenike, but stood up well to the challenge. 6
6/23 Paul Pogba
A little careless at times, but he was dominant in both defence and attack, eventually breaking the deadlock with a 79th minute header. 8
7/23 Blaise Matuidi
A strong performer in midfield, but blotted his copybook with a poor challenge that ended Onazi's game, and was worthy of a red card. 6
8/23 Yohan Cabaye
A quiet game nearly exploded with a stunning volley that struck the crossbar in the second half. 6
9/23 Mathieu Valbuena
At the heart of France's best attacking moments, but his final ball often could have been better. 7
10/23 Olivier Giroud
A physical presence in attack, but this was one of the Arsenal forward's less influential days before his removal around the hour mark. 5
11/23 Karim Benzema
Anonymous until the introduction of Griezmann, but then played his part in a strong French finish. 5
12/23 Antoine Griezmann
The arrival of the Real Sociedad forward turned the game in France's favour. 7
13/23 Nigeria: Vicent Enyeama
Impressed with some theatrical shot-stopping, but was at fault for France's opener. 6
14/23 Efe Ambrose
Distribution let down the Celtic defender on a number of occasions. 5
15/23 Juwon Oshaniwa
Unleashed some thumping tackles early on, but was often caught out by France's quick movement.6
16/23 John Obi Mikel
Struggled with the fluent moving of Valbuena, and failed to dictate play in midfield for the Nigerians. 5
17/23 Joseph Yobo
A landmark fixture for the captain ended with the disappointment of a late own-goal. 6
18/23 Kenneth Omeruo
The youngster again impressed, especially in the air when dealing with Giroud. 7
19/23 Peter Odemwingie
Another inconsistent performance from the Stoke forward. 6
20/23 Ogenyi Onazi
Was tidy while on the pitch, but twice departed on a stretcher, and was unable to recover the second time. 6
21/23 Emmanuel Emenike
A menace up front for Nigeria, and on another day his disallowed first half goal would not have been flagged offside. 7
22/23 Ahmed Musa
Not as much of an attacking threat for the Nigerians in this one, but showed a willingness to get up and down the left flank. 7
23/23 Victor Moses
Often lacked finesse, but showed incredible workrate, not least when clearing off the line from Benzema. 7
Coach Stephen Keshi vented his fury afterwards, citing several tough tackles he believed were insufficiently punished. “I am not happy with the officiating because Onazi, on two occasions, he had a very bad tackle and nothing was done by the referee. He is out now probably for weeks. I think the referee was just…for me, I think he was biased though. This is the first time I will speak about the referee in my life as a coach but it wasn’t good.”
Whatever misfortune Nigeria suffered, they also failed to maximise several promising positions and lacked France’s class in the final third, when it eventually materialised.
“It is very difficult to control every aspect of the game from the first to the last minute,” said Deschamps. “I have not seen any team doing that. We had a very strong last half an hour with more dynamism, more speed and the Nigerian team slowed down a bit. That allowed us to use space and create chances. We use short passes and it worked.”
The conditions were not the stifling ones anticipated with sporadic cloud cover ensuring only intermittent exposure to the worst of the lunchtime heat, but in any case France were refreshed by six changes from the under-strength side that drew with Ecuador in their final group game.
Yohan Cabaye returned to anchor the midfield from suspension, while Patrice Evra, Valbuena and Raphaël Varane were among those to come in, the latter replacing Mamadou Sakho who was named on the substitutes’ bench due to a thigh problem.
Nigeria brought back Chelsea winger Victor Moses for Michel Babatunde in Keshi’s only change from a team whose preparations were complicated by a row over bonus payments at this tournament.
Far from proving a distraction, the resolution ultimately determined by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan appeared something of an inspiration as they started brightly against a French side lacking their group-stage fluidity.
France benefitted from two first-half offside decisions. The first ensured Nigeria had a goal disallowed when striker Emmanuel Emenike was rightly adjudged to have turned home Ahmed Musa’s cross from an offside position. Moments later, Benzema missed his kick when clean through from Valbuena’s pass but the assistant referee’s flag saved his embarrassment.
Pogba was not always making the right decisions in advanced areas but the 21-year-old was beginning to drive France forward from central midfield. After exchanging passes with Valbuena, a fierce right-foot volley drew a good save from Enyeama.
More good work from Pogba and Valbuena created an opening for Mathieu Debuchy but the Newcastle defender could only slice a tame effort wide from 18 yards.
After the interval, Nigeria began to take control but without threatening Hugo Lloris, aside from when he was required to beat away Peter Odemwingie’s left-foot shot.
With Onazi absent and Griezmann’s invigorating presence, France found their stride. Griezmann slipped a ball through to Benzema whose shot rebounded off him via Enyeama and crept goalwards only for Moses to clear it off the line.
Benzema then flashed a shot across goal that required another desperate intervention before Cabaye struck the crossbar with a superb volley.
Having operated with a degree of comfort, Nigeria were now on the rack. Enyeama tipped over a Benzema header from Valbuena’s free-kick but then he could only palm the subsequent corner onto Pogba’s head and the Juventus midfielder was left with a simple finish at the back post.
Yobo’s own goal under pressure from Griezmann added a veneer to the scoreline but Deschamps has options to consider ahead of Friday’s game. The tough competition for places is, however, not yet threatening France’s squad unity.
Pogba said: “There is a lot of solidarity in our group. This is the strength of our group. I was man of the match today but I wish I could share it with everybody.”