KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - With all the talk about the front three, it was the influential Paul Pogba who came to the rescue as France claimed a hard-fought 2-1 win against Australia in their World Cup opener on Saturday.
Although he did not put up a scintillating display in midfield, Pogba powered into the box after a couple of one-twos and scored with a slightly deflected lob to earn Les Bleus all three points.
It had been rumored that the Manchester United player could lose his place in the starting line-up at the World Cup after a hit-and-miss season, but France coach Didier Deschamps eventually kept faith in Pogba.
“We can’t do without him,” Deschamps had said during the build-up to the World Cup.
As Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele failed to have an impact in open play, Pogba, one of only four players with previous World Cup experience, came up with the goods nine minutes from time.
According to Griezmann, he even over-delivered, becoming the first French player to score in consecutive World Cups since Michel Platini found the back of the net in 1982 and 1986.
“We are not expecting him to score, he needs to keep the ball, and win some balls,” said Griezmann, whose second-half penalty was canceled out by another penalty from Mile Jedinak.
“On his goal, he was strong, went for a couple of one-twos, that’s what we expect from him.”
Pogba was unfazed, admitting he got a little help from Aziz Behich as his shot looped off the shin of the Australia defender before going under the bar.
“I was really helped by the defender. But scoring with my ear, my nose, my foot, I don’t care. As long as it’s in, it’s fine,” he said.
While he has been largely disappointing at United, Pogba manages to raise his level when he wears the Blue shirt, and Deschamps has an explanation.
“I know how to use him,” the coach, who captained France to their only World Cup title on home soil in 1998, told a news conference.
“Paul has got a lot of potential, he puts himself in the best position.”
Deschamps’ 4-3-3 system gives Pogba more freedom as the formation features three defensive midfielders.
“It suits him very well because he has the freedom to go forward, which he would not be at liberty to do if we were playing with two defensive midfielders,” said Deschamps.
France will also face Peru and Denmark in Group C.
Writing by Julien Pretot in Rostov-on-Don; Editing by Christian Radnedge