NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia: One appears addicted to fame, the other shuns the limelight, but the chalk-and-cheese midfield partnership of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante is clicking for France at the World Cup.
The Premier League stars are the engine room of a vibrant, young French team and despite contrasting personalities off the field, they are showing they understand each other well on the pitch.
Pogba, the Manchester United extrovert, and Kante, the Chelsea introvert, will provide the bedrock for Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe to maraud forward against Uruguay in their quarter-final in Nizhny Novgorod on Friday.
It is Pogba who attracts the headlines — and not always good ones — after a difficult season under Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, during which he found himself benched a number of times.
He came in for some stinging criticism from Manchester United great Paul Scholes and critics have pointed to his ever-changing hairstyles and his Canal Plus TV “Pog Series” as examples of his self-obsession.
But in Russia, the 25-year-old has attracted headlines for the right reasons, excelling in the 4-3 win against Argentina in the last 16.
“Paul does not play lucky, he plays simple, he is good, calm,” Sambou Tati, who helped coach Pogba as a youngster at the Roissy-en-Brie youth team in the Parisian suburbs, told AFP.
Tati said his role in the French team is different from that in club football.
“Everyone expects the Paul of Juventus, where he was more attacking and where he had workers behind him. But in the French team he is more defensive.”
Tati said: “He has this charisma, this leadership, this rage to always win and this willingness to do well. He is very critical of his own performances, very demanding with himself.”
– Pogba ‘matured’ –
French teammate Adil Rami, no stranger to headlines due to his romance with actress Pamela Anderson, says Pogba has matured.
“The difference is that he became a true leader,” said Rami.
Captain Hugo Lloris agrees: “I think he is maturing, he’s growing,” he said. “He has started to grow in the changing room also and that’s a good thing. He is a leader.”
In stark contrast, Kante’s role has never been questioned since he made his debut for France in 2016.
A Premier League winner with Leicester and Chelsea, and now apparently coveted by Paris Saint-Germain, Kante, 27, appears to be every coach’s dream.
Tireless, consistent, and generating no bad headlines off the pitch, Kante has been talked up by Diego Maradona and Gary Lineker.
“Sometimes it’s like playing twelve players,” said Olivier Giroud, Kante’s teammate in the French side and at Stamford Bridge.
Pogba himself said Kante has “15 lungs” and Lucas Hernandez says his teammate is “everywhere, it’s as if he just emerges out of the ground”.
France coach Didier Deschamps says Kante is happiest when he is not in the limelight — he was tasked with nullifying the threat from Lionel Messi in the victory over Argentina, as all the headlines went to Mbappe.
And it is clear that “NG”, as he known inside the French camp, is fully appreciated by his teammates.
Samuel Umtiti even took time at a recent press conference to jokingly try and portray him in a bad light.
“I saw him cheating at cards,” the Barcelona defender said. —AFP