This could well be Lionel Messi’s World Cup, but it has also been a World Cup for a glimpse of the next great generation of footballers, post-Messi and post-Cristiano Ronaldo.
James Rodriguez, of course, has scored five goals and will meet Neymar, who has four, in a titanic quarter-final in Fortaleza on Friday night.
Those two will dominate South American football for the next decade, while Europe’s best young player can assert his claim to the future this afternoon. Marco Verratti, Raheem Sterling and Koke have all gone home, but Paul Pogba – who turned 21 in March – is still here, and his France side will take on Nigeria in Brasilia today, fighting for a place in the quarter-finals.
Pogba, so far, has shown glimpses of the talent which has made him one of the most sought-after midfielders in the game. He performs a role similar to the one he has at Juventus, to provide the thrust, the explosion and the incision in a three-man midfield. Blaise Matuidi, himself a dangerous force, does the same job on the other side while Yohan Cabaye sits in between the two of them, directing play forward with his delightful range of passing.
It is a perfectly balanced midfield – just like Pogba, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal at Juventus – and provided the solid basis for France’s excellent opening stage, in which they scored eight goals in their first two games, flying through Group E.
Against Honduras, Pogba might have been sent off early on for taking umbrage at being repeatedly stamped on by Wilson Palacios, but went on to run the game, surging through the middle and winning the penalty for France’s opening goal.
Pogba was taken off after an hour but started the second game, against Switzerland in Salvador, on the bench. But when he came on in the second half he was electric, setting up a goal for Karim Benzema with a beauty of a pass: fading away off the outside of his right boot, bending away from defenders, beyond the reach of Philippe Senderos and into Benzema’s path.
That is the thing about Pogba. Like Yaya Touré, whom he most resembles, his natural athleticism can blind people to his wonderful technical skill, vision and imagination. He is futuristically complete, remarkably so for one so young, and has scored some brilliant goals during his two full seasons with Juventus, in which he has won two Serie A titles.
If the way in which Pogba departed Manchester United left a sour taste at Old Trafford, the player himself can have few regrets. He is certain to be in demand again this summer and is already the type of player who can legitimately ask which suitor would give him the best chance of winning the Champions League. He would improve almost every midfield in European football.
Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid are interested, while Paris Saint-Germain would dearly love to have the next great French player, a native Parisian and probably the next captain of France. His agent, Mino Raiola, is close to PSG, having taken Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Maxwell and Gregory van der Wiel, among others, to the French capital.
There is no limit to what Pogba can achieve in the future, in club and the international game. But as he has been demonstrating with such panache for Juventus, his time has already begun.
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