Valbuena picking up Ribery's mantle
He is probably not the first name you would pick out of this French team. He is not a fan favourite or even a media darling, but he could well be the most important player for France in this World Cup. Mathieu Valbuena (34 caps, 5 goals) has been the best Bleu in the three pre-tournament friendlies -- consistent, sharp, decisive, in great form, and delivering precisely what manager Didier Deschamps was expecting from him in the post-Ribéry transition.
It is fair to say that Franck Ribéry loves teasing Valbuena. He is an easy target, as well. Not that it prevented "Petit vélo" ("little bike," his nickname in France) from performing alongside the Bayern Munich winger, but Ribéry's injury absence seems to have freed the Olympique Marseille midfielder.
In an 8-0 win against Jamaica on Sunday -- I know the Reggae Boyz looked like a pub team, but still -- Valbuena took the responsibility of leading the team. He became the first option when Les Tricolores had the ball.
On paper, his position was on the right, but Deschamps' instructions were to roam and find space in the pocket, behind Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema, and be decisive in the final third. That is exactly what Valbuena did. We saw him right, left and centre, dropping in the hole, taking on defenders as Ribéry used to or finding the right pass for the forwards. Valbuena's relationship with Benzema and Giroud was very good, and without the pressure of playing with Ribéry, Valbuena was himself -- and he shone.
Technically, he has great ability, his passing and crosses are top drawer, his low centre of gravity makes him hard to mark, and his set-piece deliveries are very good. Of course, it won't always be as easy as it was against Jamaica. He will have to respond to Honduras' physicality, to Switzerland's talented and experienced midfield, and to Ecuador's organisation -- but he has the momentum and the qualities to overcome each of these challenges.
It's funny to see him in this kind of form when you consider the season he had at club level with Marseille in Ligue 1. He was poor nearly from start to finish, had a shoulder injury, and apart from a few glimmers of potential, he had his most disappointing campaign in years (just 3 goals and 6 assists in 34 Ligue 1 games). Valbuena will always surprise you.
In 2010, he impressed everyone with Marseille as they secured a league-and-cup double with Deschamps as manager. Those achievements, along with some eye-catching performances in France's buildup to the World Cup, earned him a last-minute call-up Raymond Domenech's 23-man squad.
Valbuena's parents and sister traveled with French journalists to South Africa to support him and watch him play. They got to see him on the pitch for 21 minutes, as he featured in only one of the three group games in France's disgraceful campaign.
Four years on, they will be in Brazil, too, but this time everything has changed. I don't think Valbuena's dad, Carlos, would have thought back in 2010 that his son would lead France and be its playmaker at the next World Cup.
It is a credit to how hard Valbuena has worked. It is also a credit to how Deschamps molded him into the player he is now. When "DD" was at Marseille, they had their issues. They didn't get on for a while, but the manager saw something in him that Domenech or Laurent Blanc didn't see.
At Euro 2012, Blanc named him to the squad, but despite showing well in qualifying and preparatory friendlies, Valbuena didn't play a second in the tournament. Clearly Blanc didn't think the midfielder was good enough for this level.
Valbuena is proving his former manager wrong now -- and is proving a lot of other people wrong. Valbuena is one of a few players in this France squad to have started his career in lower divisions, either at home or abroad, before making it to the top (Giroud, Laurent Koscielny, Ribéry, Patrice Evra and Morgan Schneiderlin are the others).
When he started playing at Libourne, near Bordeaux, in the French third division in 2004, no one wanted him. He had to fight more than others, mostly because of his height (at less than 5-foot-5, he will be one of the smallest players at the World Cup). He was turned down so many times by clubs, but he never gave up. The title of his autobiography is "My Obstacle Course." Marseille took a gamble on him in 2006, and it paid off.
He will turn 30 in September, so this is surely his last World Cup, and it's probably the most beautiful one he could have ever dreamt to be part of. It's now time for him to deliver.