Few would take exception with Didier Deschamps’ assertion that, while other teams may have made a better impression at Euro 2020, France will really get started now the knockout phase has arrived. But Paul Pogba might.
In the heat of a fluctuating, dramatic night in Budapest the France midfielder produced a majestic display against Portugal that confirmed his tournament is truly under way. It is up to others in the world champions’ ranks to catch up. Ominously for France’s rivals, and encouragingly for Deschamps’ post-match claim that collective improvement is imminent, Karim Benzema embraced that responsibility with two goals at the Puskas Arena and a performance to silence debate over his value to the side. Uefa named the Real Madrid forward man of the match in recognition of an intelligent contribution polished by his first goals for France since his international exile ended. A reasonable selection, had Pogba not eclipsed every player wearing a white shirt.
With a defence-splitting pass that gave Kylian Mbappé his first sight of Rui Patrício’s goal, the Manchester United midfielder served warning to Portugal just as the European champions were gaining control in the first half on Wednesday. It established the tone for a stylish, incisive night’s work from Pogba, and in a midfield fight against the impressive Renato Sanches, Danilo and João Moutinho, France needed to work tirelessly for any space or advantage they could find.
There followed a perfectly flighted chip back to Mbappé that led to the Paris Saint-Germain forward collapsing theatrically to win France’s equaliser from the penalty spot. Two minutes after half-time Pogba swept a glorious pass from inside his own half around Rúben Dias and Benzema was through for a clinical second. Another highlight was brushing aside the substitute João Palhinha for a 25-yard drive that appeared destined to restore France’s lead only for Patrício to produce an outstanding save on to a post. Pogba attempted 95 passes against Portugal – 12 more than the second-highest French player, the defender Raphaël Varane – and completed 93 for an accuracy rate of 98%. By comparison his fellow midfielders attempted 64 (N’Golo Kanté), 42 (Corentin Tolisso), 72 (Sanches), 48 (Moutinho) and 23 (Danilo). Nine of Pogba’s 10 long passes found their target.
“He’s making a big impression,” Jules Koundé, the Sevilla defender, said on Thursday. “Once again, he was amazing with a great, decisive pass to Karim for his goal. We know the quality he has as a player and it’s great to see him performing like this. He’s very important for us.”
Pogba also excelled in France’s opening game against Germany before a below-par display against Hungary brought familiar criticism of his lack of consistency. “He ran out of steam,” his manager said. The honest Antoine Griezmann admitted: “Every one of us was like that. It was really hot and difficult to play.” Against Germany he was on the right of Deschamps’ midfield three. Against Portugal he started in the centre. His creativity shone in both positions.
Inevitably, and as seems the case whenever an international tournament comes around, the Pogba who flourishes for France makes an imposter of the Old Trafford version. Theories for the contrast are widely explored every two years, or three in this instance, with superior and settled management, tactics, personal motivation or the simple fact that he has Kanté alongside him valid arguments in favour of the international model. Whatever the explanation, it is not going to be aired in public by Deschamps.
“For me, it’s only the French Pogba that matters,” the manager said with an undisguised tone of resignation when the question arose again this week. “I don’t like talking about what’s going on at club football whether it’s [Ole Gunnar] Solskjær or any other coach. Players are different, coaches are different. The only thing that’s important to me is what he’s doing for the French team and the importance he has on the pitch. He is a born leader and a highly influential player.”
Pogba’s performances and finishing top of the toughest group without hitting top form will enthuse Deschamps. But there are concerns for the manager before his squad leave Budapest on Friday for Bucharest and the aptly named Arc de Triomphe stadium that will be their training base before Monday’s last-16 game against Switzerland. The Group of Death may not have claimed any high-profile victims but there could be a delayed reaction, such was the punishing toll taken on all involved.
Portugal, having again played in soaring temperatures in Budapest on Wednesday, have 48 hours fewer to rest for Sunday’s tie in Seville than Belgium. France lost two left-backs to injury in the 2-2 draw and Lucas Digne, Lucas Hernandez’s half-time replacement, may not feature again due to the thigh muscle problem sustained five minutes after his arrival. “He left something,” said Deschamps. “That is not a good sign.” Ousmane Dembélé has left the squad with a knee problem and Marcus Thuram and Thomas Lemar are being assessed after suffering injuries in training on Thursday.
Hernandez, who has a knee injury, is one of five France players who would miss a potential quarter-final with Spain or Croatia should they collect another booking against Switzerland. Griezmann, Presnel Kimpembe, Benjamin Pavard and Hugo Lloris are the others. But with Pogba in his pomp and Benzema finding his range again, France will head to Romania with the belief of world champions. “A new competition is starting now,” said Deschamps. It was a warning to others.