Paul Pogba has been involved in all of France's goals
He has answered his pre-tournament critics
The midfielder is a leader and example to team-mates
Though still only 25, Paul Pogba has already cemented his place as a senior figure in the France team. Capped 56 times by his country, the midfielder arrived in Russia with big expectations, having won the FIFA Young Player award at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Hopes were high – and, so far, he has delivered. A decisive figure in France's opening two games, Pogba can pride himself on an excellent start to the tournament.
The player nicknamed La Pioche (the Pickaxe) has hit the ground running at Russia 2018, combining creativity, energy and a knack for always being open for a pass. How times have changed for the Manchester United ace, who endured criticism ahead of the tournament from some quarters of the press. Above all, he was accused of being almost invisible on the pitch, and far too visible in the news and on social media.
Those voices have faded, and Pogba cut a relaxed figure as he walked into our studio, where we suggested a role reversal. Instead of being talked about, what if – for once – he could say whatever was on his mind?
It was a proposal that caught the France stalwart off guard, but, after a few seconds of reflection, he was off. "I'd like people to say more about how difficult this World Cup is. We had one of the toughest groups and people don't realise that. But we still came out with two victories." True enough, the four sides in Group C boasted an average FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking of 16.5 – making it the second most competitive section behind Brazil and Co in Group E.
The best players shine in adversity, of course, and Pogba has done exactly that. He played a role in France's first goal against Australia and scored the winner, before pouncing again against Peru with a pass to Olivier Giroud, whose deflected shot was turned in by Kylian Mbappe.
"It was very difficult, but we did it," said Pogba. "Peru are a tenacious and solid team who play very well together. And they also had a 12th man in the stands. The crowd was magnificent, fantastic. The atmosphere was really great."
Despite the noise, the former Juventus star embraced his responsibilities on the pitch – no easy task, given the level of expectation he shoulders. "Everyone expects a lot from Paul: great feats of technique and goals from distance," says his friend and team-mate Antoine Griezmann. "People want him to lift the crowd to their feet."
Pogba himself downplays his role as a leader and example, but, for Steven Nzonzi, one of the newest members of the squad, it fits him like a glove: "Paul has a lot of experience. He really makes things easier for everyone, including newcomers like myself."
A strong character and natural talent mean the spotlight is never far from the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup winner. Team-mates, fans and journalists all hold him to high standards, but Pogba's presence at a recent press conference – his first in four years – spoke volumes about his positive outlook. His broad grin and impish responses, meanwhile, shed light on his confidence.
Attitude can only take you so far, however, and La Pioche knows that as well as anyone. "Like I always say, the only answer that matters is on the pitch," he explained, hammering the point home ahead of France's Round of 16 tie with Argentina. The two sides meet in Kazan, where Pogba will have to answer another burning question: can he lead Les Bleus to the promised land?