France finally finds recipe for midfield success
RIBEIRAO PRETO, Brazil (AP) After years of underachieving and failed promise, France has a midfield to be proud of again.
The successful France teams of the past revolved around great midfields, with Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane freed to shine because of the lead up work by the likes of Didier Deschamps and Patrick Vieira.
France's attack - with 31 goals in the past nine games - is flourishing again due largely to the midfield foundation provided by Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye. Barring injury, they are set to start against Honduras in Group E on Sunday.
Pogba has athleticism, effortless technique and a powerful shot from long distance, as does Cabaye, whose intelligent, crisp passing sets the early tempo.
Matuidi has become an energetic, driving force with his tireless running and controlled aggression. He's also developing a knack for finding the net, scoring a spectacular volley against the Netherlands in March and netting two clean strikes against Jamaica last Sunday. All three midfielders scored in France's warm-up matches.
A possible drawback, as Pogba points out, is that all three like to push forward. This means that France plays with such a high attacking line that it can be exposed to counter attacks.
''We'll have to work things out. But that doesn't mean playing with the handbrake on, it's just a case of not pushing up too much,'' Pogba said. ''I have a good understanding with the other midfielders.''
Deschamps, France's coach, has sometimes criticized Pogba for trying to replicate in the national team what he does for Juventus, where he plays in a more attack-minded role. Deschamps wants him sitting slightly deeper for France.
''I have to be careful, because it's not the same way as I play for my club,'' Pogba said. ''I'm not as free.''
France has in the past shown more flair in midfield than the current team, which is built more in the image of Deschamps: tactically well-drilled, combative yet disciplined.
''Individually we might not be as strong as other teams,'' Pogba said. ''But collectively we have a very good team.''
France's ''Carre Magique'' (Magic Four) featured the vision of Platini, the finesse of Alain Giresse, the rigor of Luis Fernandez and the boundless stamina of Jean Tigana. They helped France reach the World Cup semifinals in 1982 and 1986, with a European Championship win sandwiched in between.
Zidane led France to the 1998 World Cup title, scoring twice in the final against Brazil, with Christian Karembeu, Emmanuel Petit and Deschamps providing the midfield steel, and Vieira coming off the bench.
Zidane was France's star of victorious Euro 2000 campaign, with Vieira now an established starter alongside Deschamps.
Vieira peaked at the 2006 World Cup, where his water-tight central midfield partnership with Claude Makelele gave Zidane the freedom to roam.
The theme running through those midfield combinations was continuity - something lacking since 2006. This reflected in the results, with France going out at the group stage at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup without winning a game.
When Deschamps took over from Laurent Blanc, he hoped Abou Diaby would be his midfield general, but injuries have plagued Diaby so much he has not played for France since September 2012.
Deschamps was still trying to figure out how to rebuild when Pogba came along.
At the age of 19, with just one international appearance, Deschamps selected Pogba against reigning world and European champion Spain in a crunch World Cup qualifier in March, 2013.
It was a big show of faith from Deschamps, and an even bigger gamble.
Pogba was sent off for a rash challenge on Xavi and France lost 1-0, but by then he'd already shown Deschamps enough to convince him of his credentials. That self-assurance with which Pogba took on Spain's midfield confirmed him as a long-term prospect for France.
Follow Jerome Pugmire at http://twitter.com/jeromepugmire