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 Posted by Jonathan Johnson
Jun 19, 2014

Cabaye the understated untouchable

After a glittering season with Real Madrid, French hopes have been pinned on Karim Benzema

France have come a long way since they were beaten 2-0 by Ukraine in a FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff at the NSC Olimpiyskiy in Kiev last November, a result that left Les Bleus' Brazilian aspirations hanging by a thread. For the return leg in Paris, manager Didier Deschamps opted to make a number of tactical changes and -- thanks to a heroic collective performance from his players -- the French secured their berth in this summer's tournament.

Since that memorable night at Stade de France, Deschamps -- who was the captain of France's 1998 World Cup champion and 2000 European champion -- has not looked back, and neither have his players. In fact, the momentum from that night is still carrying them into Friday's clash with neighbour Switzerland at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador.

One of the key changes made by Deschamps for the return leg was to return Yohan Cabaye to the midfield, after dropping him for the ill-fated trip to the Ukrainian capital. Since that moment, the Paris Saint-Germain star has been untouchable.

Played in a deep-lying role in front of the back four that night, the 28-year-old excelled and put in arguably his finest showing in the bleu of the national team. Tenacious in the tackle and responsible for a number of key interceptions while utilising his brilliant passing skills and hawk-like vision, Cabaye was one of the main protagonists in Les Tricolores' famous 3-0 comeback victory.

From that match onward, Deschamps' mind was made up about certain players -- notably Manchester City's Samir Nasri and Monaco's Eric Abidal -- and the team that triumphed on that night was largely the one that started the 3-0 win over Honduras in Porto Alegre on Sunday. Only Franck Ribery was missing; Antoine Griezmann, a rising star who many consider to have the potential to usurp Ribery's role in the French national team ahead of time, replaced the Bayern Munich man.

Crucially for France, though, the three-man midfield comprised of Cabaye, PSG teammate Blaise Matuidi and Juventus starlet Paul Pogba remained intact. That unit, thanks to the second-leg performance against Ukraine, has now become indispensable for Deschamps.

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Cabaye, at the heart of it in his deep-lying role, is now considered integral too.

From being on the verge of falling out of favour when overlooked for the first leg of the playoff clash, the former Newcastle United man has proved himself to be thoroughly indispensable. With each passing match, Cabaye further underlines his importance to this France side, and that was no clearer than against Honduras.

The French No. 6 was brilliant once again, completing 78 passes over his 65-minute display and playing a major role in two of Les Bleus' three goals to secure France's first opening win at a World Cup since the 1998 edition on home soil.

Questioned about his pair of assists shortly after the game, Cabaye was content, but reluctant to take anything for granted. Like his teammates, the PSG man knows the potential pitfalls awaiting the French if they start to believe their own hype too soon. Deschamps has drummed into them that "the star is the team," a refrain which now appears to be this new France squad's mantra.

"It's satisfying," he told the media of his two assists. "But we just need to keep it up, think only of the team and play to win every game. Winning matches is what allows you to think positively about what lies ahead."

Although there is no one individual star, Karim Benzema has had an incendiary start to his first-ever World Cup campaign -- scoring twice and playing a big role in the third goal against Honduras. Meanwhile, Mathieu Valbuena and Matuidi, Cabaye's tireless midfield partner, also emerged from the opening fixture with plenty of credit for their mature performances.

Yohan Cabaye is has become the heart of the French midfield.
Yohan Cabaye is has become the heart of the French midfield.

Yet Cabaye was equally important, even if his role was rather more understated.

The PSG man barely put a foot wrong, helping to limit Los Catrachos to fleeting glimpses of Hugo Lloris' goal. Meanwhile, Cabaye was contributing at the other end in a manner that justifies the tag of "the French Xavi" given to him by former France coach Laurent Blanc, now his club boss at PSG.

Despite not being played in a more attacking role, similar to the one Premier League fans will be familiar seeing him in with Newcastle, Cabaye is relishing his new position.

"Our jobs are clearly defined," he told FIFA.com. "I have a more defensive role than the other two; I stay in front of the defence and cover for the full-backs when they go forward. Another task of mine is to remind one of my fellow midfielders to either remain alongside me or to support the attack.

"We communicate with each other brilliantly, and we're not afraid to keep the ball between the three of us, interchanging in tight spaces to start off an attack."

That interchanging play is now a key feature for France, and it's one of the reasons they have been so difficult to dispossess and break down since switching to a fluid 4-3-3 formation.

Cabaye has been frustrated by a lack of regular starts since arriving in the capital from Newcastle back in January -- largely thanks to Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti's almost telepathic understanding of each other -- but at international level he remains a key figure. As long as he is pulling the strings in the background, with Matuidi and Pogba taking care of matters in front of him, France appear to be going from strength to strength.

Jonathan Johnson

Based in Paris, Jonathan Johnson is a freelance football journalist and the voice of PSG TV. He writes for ESPN, Bleacher Report and French Football Weekly. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_LeGossip.

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