KAZAN • 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 yesterday.
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 rumoured 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 Russia showpiece.
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.
"We are not expecting him to score, he needs to keep the ball, and win some balls," said Griezmann, whose second-half penalty - awarded thanks to the VAR - was cancelled out by another penalty from Australia captain Mile Jedinak.
"But on his goal, he was strong, went for a couple of one-twos, that's what we expect from him."
Pogba admitted he got some 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 told a news conference.
Deschamps' 4-3-3 system gives Pogba more freedom to roam 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," added Deschamps.
The Group C match had a bizarre incident in which Australia defender Trent Sainsbury burst the ball in a tackle.
Sainsbury won the Telstar ball deep in defence near France's left corner but stopped suddenly with surprise and gestured to referee Andres Cunha.
He then booted the ball off the field before a new one was produced. However, the second ball had to be replaced within 10 minutes after it also deflated.