STADE DE FRANCE, PARIS—Olympique de Marseille’s Mathieu Valbuena emphatically reasserted his claims to a starting berth for France at this summer’s FIFA World Cup with a hat-trick of assists as Les Bleus crushed Norway 4-0 in a friendly on Tuesday.
Although coach Didier Deschamps has shown unwavering loyalty toward the 29-year-old since taking the job in 2012, Valbuena’s starting role appeared to be slightly in doubt following a disappointing Ligue 1 campaign with OM this season. However, those concerns were blown away by an impressive 70-minute display by the diminutive midfield creator.
With a number of expected World Cup starters rested on the night, Deschamps handed chances to a number of the fringe players in the French squad.
Although Valbuena cannot be classed as a fringe player—considering that he has featured in every single one of the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship-winning captain’s games as manager so far—there was the feeling that this was a test for Le Petit Velo (the little bicycle).
Played to the right of Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud in a three-pronged attack, Valbuena was partnered on the opposite side by the impressive Antoine Griezmann of Real Sociedad. Both quickly started to influence the game, with the Marseille man delivering a number of tantalising early crosses.
Griezmann went close with one headed effort from a Valbuena free-kick inside the opening two minutes, before Giroud met the resulting corner—also provided by the France No. 8—with a towering effort that was well-saved.
It was only a matter of time before the hosts took the lead, and after 15 minutes, another peach of a Valbuena cross was met by a French head. This time it was Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, his low-swivel header effort saw him celebrate his first goal for Les Bleus at Stade de France.
From then on, Valbuena was central to everything the French did.
Norway enjoyed the better of the remaining 30 minutes of the first half, but when Les Bleus did threaten, it was thanks to the industry of their pint-sized playmaker.
Six minutes into the second half, Valbuena picked up the ball midway inside the Norwegian half and took one touch to set himself before playing an angled through ball into the path of Giroud. Despite a slightly miscued first touch, the Arsenal man produced a majestic volleyed finish with his second to put Deschamps’ men well and truly in the driver's seat.
It was the sort of pass that Marseille fans have grown accustomed to seeing Valbuena spraying around the Stade Velodrome pitch in recent seasons, but it was a disappointingly infrequent sight during Les Phoceens’ torrid latest Ligue 1 campaign.
Seventeen minutes later, he completed his hat-trick.
Linking up brilliantly well with Paris Saint-Germain’s enterprising left-back Lucas Digne, Valbuena—on his opposite side—took the ball to the byline before clipping an inch-perfect cross onto the waiting head of Giroud. The Gunners’ star only had to turn the ball goal-ward, with his arcing effort beating Orjan Nyland comfortably.
Two minutes later, Valbuena was off to be replaced by Olympique Lyonnais’ Clement Grenier. Stade de France rewarded his superlative performance with rapturous applause, in stark contrast to the jeering that he received against Australia in the French capital last October per 101greatgoals.com.
If there was any doubt regarding Valbuena’s role within this France squad and question marks over his inclusion in Deschamps’ starting XI of choice, there can be little argument after this performance.
Although his performances for Marseille have left a lot a lot to be desired over the past 12 months, the southern giants have struggled as a whole. Few OM players have emerged from this past season with any real credit. His treble of assists is exactly half of his season total of goals provided for his club.
One thing that cannot be doubted, though, is that when Valbuena pulls on the shirt for France, he gives everything for the cause. Even if he cannot be relied upon at club level consistently, Deschamps trusts him implicitly. He knows that the 29-year-old will always deliver a high-quality performance.
With Valbuena now almost certain of his place in France’s starting XI for the opening match of this summer’s tournament against Honduras on June 15 in Porto Alegre—if it was ever in doubt at all—Franck Ribery could have cause for concern after witnessing Griezmann also putting in an impressive performance on the left.
*Valbuena's Ligue 1 statistics appear thanks to Ligue1.com.