Sunday 19 January 2020

Comment: Semi-final the perfect stage for ever-maturing Paul Pogba to leave his indelible mark on St Petersburg


France's Paul Pogba. Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters
France's Paul Pogba. Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Jonathan Liew

The French influence is never very far from the surface in St Petersburg, wherever you choose to look. The wide boulevards and graceful river bridges are a clear nod to Paris. French artists, architects and thinkers flocked to the city in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Hermitage boasts the largest collection of French art outside France. Even the imposing Alexander Column - a monument to Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812 - was designed by French architect Auguste de Montferrand.

And so, two centuries on, there is something strangely fitting in the fact that it is St Petersburg where France's campaign to restore itself to the aristocracy of world football will stand or fall.

They will take the field against Belgium at the Krestovsky Stadium tonight with both the knowledge and the burden that they are clear favourites to win their second World Cup title and that for all their conquests so far, anything less will be regarded as a disappointment.

Still, the weight of expectation is something France have had to deal with for a while, ever since it became clear that they were in possession of a truly exceptional generation of young footballers.

And nobody, perhaps, is more aware of that expectation than Paul Pogba, the brilliant young Manchester United midfielder who has neither scored nor assisted a goal, but has somehow become emblematic of a French squad filled with stars but which has somehow, simply and effectively, got on with the job.

France headcoach Didier Deschamps. Photo: David Vincent/AP Photo
France headcoach Didier Deschamps. Photo: David Vincent/AP Photo

"He is mastering his game, his talent," 1998 World Cup winner Christian Karembeu said this week. "And like Pogba, this France team is growing in power."

This has been a reassuringly anonymous World Cup for Pogba, who has slipped under the radar, to contribute without prejudice, to glide along in the slipstream created by the spectacular rise of Kylian Mbappe. In a way, the performances of Mbappe have been the best thing that could have happened to Pogba, providing him not only with valuable shelter from the storm of scrutiny, but the perfect outlet for his range of defence-breaking passes. For a player whose job in Russia has been as much defensive as offensive, Pogba's attacking contributions remain noteworthy.

His 31 key passes are fewer only than Antoine Griezmann, his nine dribbles fewer only than Mbappe, and he has made the most solo runs into the attacking third of any French player.

Against Belgium's expected midfield two of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini, Pogba's ability to break the lines, to ride the tackle, to find the space and pick the pass is likely to be more crucial than ever.

It has helped, of course, that manager Didier Deschamps seems to have found a system geared towards Pogba's strengths, with the tireless N'Golo Kante alongside him forming an effective partnership, and Constantin Tolisso and Blaise Matuidi offering extra cover in midfield.

Off the pitch, Pogba too has grown in stature. Right-back Benjamin Pavard talks gushingly of how Pogba has always been available to talk, reminding him of the ability that got him into the squad of the first place, urging him to enjoy the moment.

"He's maturing, he's growing, he's been accumulating experience," said captain Hugo Lloris. "He's starting to grow in the dressing room as well."

Clearly the Pogba of 2018 is a subtly different character to the one we saw performing in such fleeting bursts at Euro 2016 two years ago.

Overwhelmed by the intense cauldron of a home tournament, weighed down by the pressure to single-handedly deliver the trophy to France as Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane had done before him, sidetracked by a row with 'L'équipe' newspaper, Pogba cut a distracted figure: jumpy, quixotic, too eager by far to prove a point. It is an experience that has shaped him.

Two years under Jose Mourinho at United have also helped him to develop his game and fine-tune his relationship with it, and despite rocky patches, he has looked increasingly assured during his time at Old Trafford, culminating in the magnificent two-goal salvo at the Etihad Stadium that effectively denied City the Premier League title against their greatest rivals.

"He has grown old, mature, he has a lived experience in relation to his personal experiences," Lloris explained.

It's important to remember just what Pogba has had to negotiate in the last few years.

A rich and early-blossoming talent that essentially forced him to grow up in public; the burden of carrying France into a home tournament; one of the most high-profile transfers in the history of football, with a price tag he did not choose for himself; and the incalculable and complex baggage that comes from being a cultural icon and a prominent, rich, young black Muslim in a society that has traditionally treated him with suspicion.

"Yes, I have less right to errors than others," he said ahead of the tournament. "I went from a player who was the most important transfer in the world to the player who was the most criticised. It's fine. I'm still the first of them.

"I'm not playing a role. I don't live for people, for what they think. I will not be disturbed if someone says 'I do not love you'. You have that right. You do not have to love me."

Now the semi-final beckons. Perhaps he will simply carry on in his current vein: passing, tackling, creating, oiling, playing the only way he knows how.

Or perhaps, alternatively, this will be the moment he chooses to burst out of the shadows and become the latest Frenchman to leave his mark on St Petersburg. (© Independent News Service)

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