Pogba lived up to the hype vs. Nigeria
BRASILIA, Brazil -- If Juventus are to cash in on Paul Pogba, then his potential suitors will have watched his performance in Brasilia with a mixture of excitement and concern. In France's 2-0 win over Nigeria, he looked like a player who would provide answers to anybody's problems. The premium has almost certainly risen once more. And if Juve want to keep Pogba, then negotiations with agent Mino Raiola just got more difficult.
Frequently driving at a hard Nigerian centre, eventually popping up with a decisive goal, Pogba looked, at just 21, like he can live up to the hype. France have not had such a player since Patrick Vieira's retirement. The continuation of their tournament owes plenty to a player who Vieira himself said in March was "better on a technical level and is certainly more talented than I was."
Vieira was being modest, since he was among the finest of his age, but explained his reasons. "He pushes forward more and therefore scores more goals," Vieira told France Football in March. The former France captain's comments were fully legitimised by Pogba's match-winning performance in Brasilia.
France had, until manager Didier Deschamps removed Olivier Giroud to push Karim Benzema inside, laboured against a well-organised opponent in what was by far the poorest round-of-16 match so far. Benzema's greater involvement freed up space for Pogba to revive the surges he had tried in the game's early stages. After Benzema had a header saved by Vincent Enyeama, it was Pogba who pounced on the Nigeria keeper's mistake to nod the game into French hands.
"I am not afraid," Pogba said after the match when asked his feelings about a potential quarterfinal meeting with Germany in Rio. "We are the French national team. We are not afraid. Any team you are going to play, you play to win and you have to give everything."
The confidence of his words were matched by a relaxed demeanour as he switched seamlessly from fluent English to French. He has never been lacking in the confidence department, going back to when, as an 18-year-old, he took on Sir Alex Ferguson. Most would agree Pogba got the better of that quarrel, since on leaving Manchester United, he became the player who they desperately require. Ferguson accepting Paul Scholes' January 2011 plea to end retirement was a final straw for a player who felt good enough to solve the aching hole in United's midfield.
Now, he and Raiola hold all the aces should United ever want their prodigal back. How Old Trafford suits must regret not handing him the wages demanded for a new contract during the 2010-11 season. Instead, they may have to sit and watch Chelsea steam in and take him; there was a notable lack of reference to Pogba in Ferguson's recent autobiography. The 800,000 pounds eventually received as Pogba escaped to Turin is microscopically small beer against the 60 million pounds quoted last season to executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
As his imminent departure became official, it seemed that Pogba had not shown enough as a reserve player to meet his expectations of selection and recompense. These are not the sole criticisms laid at the player, or indeed were they the only coaches to not be fully convinced. Having escaped a sending-off against Honduras, Deschamps omitted Pogba from the 5-2 destruction of Switzerland, before he failed to show much in a 0-0 draw with Ecuador. The French press have been scathing about a player failing to meet his inordinate talent. In Brasilia, Deschamps placed himself firmly in the Pogba fan club, while at the same time not dismissing that line of opinion.
"I think he gets a lot of criticism, but that's part of a footballer's life," said Deschamps at his postmatch news conference. "I think it's good. It will toughen him up a bit. He's young, I think it's normal that he's been criticised, but it's part of the life for a footballer.
"He stood up today, when we wanted him to, he stepped up to the plate, he showed his potential. He played a little more simply than usual, but all the credit is due to him. Even before the goal, I was going to talk about the remarkable match he played. I hope that he does that on a regular basis now."
In a team shorn of Franck Ribery through injury and following on from an era of intense underachievement, Pogba, alongside Benzema, carries a vast expectation. The 5,000 Frenchmen in the Estadio Nacional made clear their approval by regaling their young hero in song as victory was completed by a Joseph Yobo own goal. For the first time since Vieira was around, they are in the last eight of a World Cup.
Pogba, Raiola and Juventus, meanwhile, are in a position to name their prices.