France mark return to Stade de France with commanding win vs. Russia
PARIS -- Three quick thoughts from France's 4-2 friendly win over Russia on Tuesday at the Stade de France. It was Les Bleus' first match in the capital since the November terrorist attacks on Paris.
1. Returning to Stade de France
France captain Hugo Lloris said in the build-up to this game that it was important for everyone -- players, fans and journalists -- to return to the Stade de France. The events of Nov. 13 last year will be forever etched in the minds of the French people, and there was a grisly reminder of that trauma when Brussels was attacked last week.
The Stade de France was infamously targeted by suicide bombers when France last played at the venue, and although the attackers that night failed to breach the gates of the ground, security was ramped up for the visit of Russia. Fans arriving at the nearest train station, less than a 10-minute walk from the ground, met police officers as soon as they arrived.
It was not just the thought of the police snipers posted around the ground that made you feel as if you were being watched every step of the way to the Stade de France. The atmosphere was still relaxed, given the context, but the security cordon was much wider, and security services and stewards kept a close eye on advancing supporters in between various checkpoints where bags were searched.
Russia are not as glamorous an opponent as Germany, but it is clear that some fans were still wary following the tragic events of last year. While 79,000 people packed the stadium for the visit of the world champions, only 65,000 paid in on Tuesday night, with French president Francois Hollande only confirmed as attending late in the day.
Before kickoff, there was a clear sense of pride and resilience among the home fans. La Marseillaise is a rousing chorus at the best of times, and here the French national anthem was belted out defiantly once more. Every second fan waving a tricolor added to the spectacle.
Large banners were unfurled by supporters behind one of the goals just before kickoff. One depicted the European Championship trophy, the other had a message that read "2016, all united towards a same objective: the title."
And following goals from N'Golo Kante, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Dimitri Payet and Kingsley Coman against an admittedly poor Russian side, fans and players alike will feel that's a realistic aim.
2. Kante's happy birthday
As he did with Payet, France coach Didier Deschamps was left with no choice but to call upon Kante for this month's friendlies.
Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have been spectacular at Leicester City, but Kante has also been vital to the Foxes' surprise rise to the top of the Premier League. The energetic midfielder was given his France debut on Friday as a half-time replacement for Lassana Diarra in the 3-2 win over the Netherlands.
Against Russia, he was played just ahead of Diarra in France's three-man midfield as Paris Saint-Germain's Blaise Matuidi was rested. It was the night of Kante's 25th birthday, and he required less than eight minutes to mark it with a goal.
After the front trio of Anthony Martial, Antoine Griezmann and Gignac carved open the Russian defence, Kante did a good impression of Matuidi by arriving late into the box and calmly sending visiting keeper Igor Akinfeev the wrong way for the opening goal.
Kante had a clear licence to get forward and didn't stop there. On 16 minutes, he skewed a volley from the corner of the penalty area, and when Griezmann surprisingly scuffed a perfect setup from Gignac, Kante was called for offside in the Russian six-yard box.
He also put in a good cross for Gignac in the second half but sometimes looked a little unsure of his positioning on the right of the midfield triumvirate with the excellent Diarra occupying a more central role just in front of the defence.
A night to remember for Kante, then.
Deschamps will be more worried about his defence, which switched off on a free kick to let Russia back in at 2-1 and again from open play for 3-2.
3. Sun shines on Gignac, Payet perfection
Gignac's form has certainly not suffered since trading sunshine from the south of France for its Mexican equivalent. The former Marseille man won the Liga MX Apertura in his first season with Tigres of Monterrey, with his form since his move to Mexico last summer putting paid to concerns that being out of sight would put him well out of Deschamps' mind.
Alexandre Lacazette's on-field troubles and Karim Benzema's off-field troubles helped Gignac earn a recall for the Germany game back in November. His impressive cameo and second goal in that 2-0 win were quickly forgotten as the true horror of the Paris attacks became apparent after full-time.
But thankfully, Gignac should get plenty of plaudits this time as his impressive Mexican tan was not the only thing that stood out from the stands. He played an integral part in France's first goal, and Griezmann should have gotten a second from the striker's cutback.
Gignac then raced across his marker to steer home a header from a Griezmann free kick to give France a richly deserved two-goal lead after 38 minutes. He looked lean and hungry in the first half and had a header deflected over the bar in the second.
Another player who looked like he might miss out on Euro 2016 just a few months ago is now surely a nailed-on certainty for France's 23-man squad for the tournament.
Payet hit the post on his return against the Netherlands and played even better after being introduced as a second-half sub against Russia. Seconds after coming on, he stepped up to arrow a superb, long-range free kick past the Russian keeper and in off the post -- a fitting celebration on the day West Ham's creator-in-chief celebrated his 29th birthday.
That made it 3-1 on 64 minutes, and though Kingsley Coman added a spectacular fourth goal on 76, it was Payet's strike that took the breath away.
Mark covers European football for ESPN FC. Twitter: @mrodden