France’s Paul Pogba made the ultimate difference in Les Bleus’ 2-0 FIFA World Cup last 16 win over Nigeria in Brasilia on Monday and is now set to play a key role in the quarter-final against Germany in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
His 79th-minute header was enough to break the brave resistance of the Super Eagles’ talented goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, and the Juventus man is now coming into his own at a key time for Didier Deschamps’ side. The meeting with Germany in the last eight could set the stage for this precious talent to explode into this summer’s breakout star.
The tournament started well enough for Pogba, as he put in a solid World Cup debut performance in the 3-0 win over Honduras. However, during that encounter the 21-year-old exhibited one of the more raw sides of his game: his temperament.
Pogba showed his naivety when he lashed out at Wilson Palacios following a heavy challenge in the first half. The Frenchman was lucky to not be dismissed, but Palacios was eventually shown a red card before the break for fouling Pogba a second time and conceding a penalty that was converted by Karim Benzema.
In the following match, the talented midfielder found himself on the bench to start with as Les Bleus demolished Switzerland 5-2 to seize control of Group E. However, the Juventus star provided a sublime assist for Benzema’s goal—France’s fourth in Salvador—and played his way back into the starting XI for the final group match against Ecuador.
According to ESPN FC’s Julien Laurens, Deschamps took Pogba to one side after the Honduras game to speak with him regarding his temperament. The result was his benching against Switzerland, and it appeared to do the trick.
Since missing out from the start against the Swiss, Pogba has looked more mature—if still a little unrefined—and his reward has been two consecutive starts against both Ecuador and Nigeria. His return to the fore in the last 16 victory means that he is almost certain to start at Estadio do Maracana against Germany.
Assuming he does start, Pogba will be one of France’s main protagonists on Friday.
In the Nigeria clash, the youngster was constantly driving from midfield into the final third and posing the Africans all sorts of problems. Coming up against a German defence that looks uncharacteristically vulnerable, the French No. 19 will be important going forward as well as stopping Joachim Low’s players from creating anything in the middle of the park.
Pogba needed the first half to truly find his feet against Nigeria, before going on to enjoy a storming second-half performance, but he will have to pick up where he left off.
Deschamps’ midfield three of Pogba and Paris Saint-Germain pair Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye has proved to be one of France’s greatest strengths so far in Brazil. The latter is the more understated, deep-lying creator, while the former duo are the more physical and dynamic elements of the talented trio.
Pogba is also particularly important because he, like Antoine Griezmann, is currently playing without fear. Neither starlet has been around the team long enough to be truly considered a part of the furniture just yet, so both are not only playing to impress, but they are also uninhibited by the expectations that surround the squad.
The players’ failure to cope with this pressure has been a major problem with previous French sides, and Pogba and Griezmann currently look capable of handling the expectations that will be heaped upon this aside after an excellent showing so far.
Pogba has been in the setup for slightly longer than Griezmann, so he has greater experience with the national team, but he should still be considered a newcomer. Both joined the team at a similar stage, with little or no expectations placed upon the team because of their poor showing towards the end of their World Cup qualification campaign.
The Juventus man has carried his exemplary form from the under-20s to the senior side though and is now flourishing with Les Bleus. Provided that he can maintain his impressive maturity, Pogba could go on to become one of his country’s all-time most-capped players and is also an outside candidate to take over the captaincy from goalkeeper Hugo Lloris when Deschamps sees fit to appoint a new leader.
Despite his youthful exuberance, Pogba will be keen to demonstrate on Friday that he is already one of the main leaders of this new France team by putting in another superb display that belies his tender age.
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