Comment and Analysis
World Cup: Mathieu Valbuena vital for France's hopes
Paul Pogba continues to hog the headlines after breaking the deadlock in the win over Nigeria, but Mathieu Valbuena is the small man making a big impression as France prepare for the World Cup quarter-finals...
Last Updated: 01/07/14 10:30am
Understandably given his large frame and even bigger reputation, Paul Pogba is the France star occupying most people's attention.
That's unlikely to change after the lanky midfielder nodded in the opener to break Nigeria's stubborn resistance and earn FIFA's Man of the Match award. But Mathieu Valbuena is proving himself to be the most crucial cog in Didier Deschamps' machine.
Pint-sized Valbuena looks like a man determined to prove that he belongs with the giants of the game at the highest level - a point he is making emphatically in Brazil with a series of impressive performances and decisive contributions. This is nothing new, though, for the 29-year-old who has had to fight harder than most all the way through his career to stand out above the crowd.
Symptoms of a form of short man syndrome were identified in the 5ft 6in schemer as far back as his teenage days, when Valbuena was released by Bordeaux as an 18-year-old. The club denied that his height was a factor in their decision to cut loose the small teenager, pointing instead to Valbuena's perceived lack of pace and that he "needed to avoid confrontations."
Since then, bouncebackability has become a regular theme throughout Valbuena's career. He had to fight his way back from amateur level to the French third division, where his technical ability helped him shine. But his coach at Libourne Saint-Seurin still saw his desire to "do everything" as a flaw. Marseille eventually took a punt in 2006 on Valbuena, who again had to scrap through a difficult first year as a professional before he was eventually trusted with the unenviable task of replacing the departed Franck Ribery.
Valbuena's doubters remained, however, most notably in the shape of then Marseille coach Deschamps, who wanted the winger sold. Eventually, after two failed attempts to get rid, Deschamps was won over as Valbuena worked his way off the bench to play a key role in a Ligue 1 title and two Coupe de la Ligue triumphs.
Deschamps then later doubted the winger at international level when he took over as France coach. Valbuena was dropped for the World Cup qualification play-off first leg in Ukraine which France lost 2-0. Deschamps restored Valbuena to his side for the return leg in Paris. He shone and France completed a stunning recovery to reach the finals.
Valbuena's spirit and technical talents are evidently now clear to Deschamps, because the World Cup winner has eventually come to rely upon the right-sider, despite the star quality which surrounds him in the France midfield and attack.
The coach rested his number eight for the final goalless group game against Ecuador, perhaps giving him even more motivation to impress in the second round. That, Valbuena certainly did.
On the right of an attacking axis which also featured Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema, Valbuena created six chances and not surprisingly had a hand in both goals against Nigeria. In misplacing only three passes out of 51 attempted, his completion rate of 94 per cent was the highest of any player on the pitch, but his graft matched his creative talent. No one covered more metres for France in Brasilia, while three successful tackles was a joint team high along holding midfielder Yohan Cabaye.
Perhaps given the fact that Valbuena will turn 30 just a few weeks into the new Ligue 1 season, Marseille appear willing to listen to offers for the diminutive winger. OM have already signed a replacement - Romain Alessandri from Rennes - while Arsenal and Liverpool have both been named among Valbuena's suitors. He is said to be available for under £10million, which at a sixth of Pogba's valuation, appears to be a tiny price to pay for a small player of Valbuena's huge quality.