When every other mention of Paul Pogba isn’t attached to a quip over his latest haircut, a new social media post or yet another reminder of his price tag, he must be doing something right.
On or off the pitch, the French midfielder is the kind of individual who automatically stands out and that’s not always to his benefit. Given his immense talent and natural ability, anything short of an excellent display from Pogba renders him an easy target for critics and many column inches have already been dedicated to the disparagement of some of his more disappointing performances.
Despite a subdued start during France’s World Cup opener, Pogba’s influence on France’s gameplay has grown and unmistakably came to the fore in a thrilling 4-3 win over Argentina.
However, his importance to Les Bleus was obvious even before that stellar display as France supporters pined for the often derided individual when a rather flat midfield could conjure little of note during a drab 0-0 draw in their final group game against Denmark – still the only goalless draw of this World Cup.
The lack of ingenuity in midfield was alarming and didn’t put Deschamps’ tactics in the best light, even if there was little to play for in that encounter. Pogba’s presence doesn’t seamlessly compensate for his side’s shortcomings in terms of their approach but certainly bridges the gap and makes for a more fluid process.
Even at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho’s approach leaves much to be desired and often sees Pogba bear the brunt of the blame. Not all of it is unwarranted.
When the Premier League giants struggle to release the handbrake, the Frenchman does have a tendency to take it upon himself to make something happen and while that is an admirable attitude, he often winds up dwelling on the ball or attempting to beat one defender too many.
With France though, he has far more flair and attacking verve around him to feed off. Les Bleus boast an embarrassment of riches in forward areas and although many of those exciting talents are bound by the restraints of Deschamps’ instruction, they are still there for Pogba to cleverly tap into.
His incredible vision and sublime execution came to the fore against Argentina as he played numerous balls into space for the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to devour. It’s that ability to unlock his side’s true attacking potential that will be absolutely key when they face Uruguay in the quarter-finals.
With Atletico Madrid duo Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez laying a solid foundation in central defence, the South Americans have been compact and disciplined as a unit, unsurprisingly boasting the best defensive record at the World Cup having conceded just once in the tournament so far.
Pogba will have to be patient and precise with his probing in his efforts to break their stubborn resistance. It will be a test of his mental resolve as much as his footballing capabilities and will demand a level of maturity that he has scarcely portrayed with United.
However, recent outings will inspire confidence among the French contingent in their midfield maestro. His masterclass against Argentina could be a sign of things to come and a testament to his temperament. Or was it only another glimpse of the player he may never fully grow into?
Questions are waiting to be answered at the Nizhny Novogorod Stadium.
One team has attacking football written into the DNA while the other is currently enjoying a generation that, while yet to be proven golden, continues to express a love of goals.
Five-time World Cup winners Brazil have been efficient if not breathlessly exciting so far but turned up the heat in a stifling Samara when they needed to in the round of 16 against Mexico.
Belgium, meanwhile, pulled their World Cup hopes out of the fire as substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli sparked a nerve-shredding 3-2 win over Japan.
It’s hard to imagine the ball will stay out of the net. But who are the players likely to place it there? We look at some of the key battles below.
Histrionics aside, the boy who would be King has elevated his game with each match as he continues to shake off the ring-rust that saw him sidelined with a foot injury back in February.
Against Mexico he looked more relaxed and was happy to trust his stellar supporting cast with more of the ball rather than taking on the world himself.
Indeed, he only completed two dribbles against El Tri while making five key passes, including the cheeky back-heel to Willian which led to the PSG superstar’s opener.
If Belgium roll out the green carpet in between midfield and defence like they did against Japan, it’ll be easy pickings for Neymar.
He’s been fouled nearly six times per game so far and roughly dispossessed the same amount. Whatever happens – he’ll make himself the centre of attention.
Eden Hazard has been less conspicuous than Neymar but that is through no fault of his own, as the statistics suggest he has been every bit as good as his Brazilian counterpart so far.
The Chelsea forward was the only player that consistently troubled Japan, first half and second, as defenders didn’t know whether to back off due to his pace or get touch-tight with his dribbling.
It was both that did for the Japanese in the end, as his twist and burst of pace on the left opened up the space for him to pick out Marouane Fellaini for the equaliser.
With Casemiro banned, Brazil have lost a crucial layer of defensive coating ahead of Miranda and Thiago Silva. It is likely Fernandinho who will be asked to perform mop-up duties but right-back Fagner also needs to have the game of his life against the drifting dribbler.
PHILIPPE COUTINHO v KEVIN DE BRUYNE
Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi came to inglorious ends swiftly in the knockouts. If they had a Phillipe Coutinho to dovetail with then most likely their storybooks wouldn’t have slammed shut in the round of 16.
Indeed Neymar is lucky to have a player that so effortlessly unearths space between the lines and treats the ball with the utmost care – all while having the daring to pick out a pass and launch long-range howitzers.
His pass success rate so far at the World Cup is 90 per cent, which is quite remarkable for a player tasked to move the needle in the attacking third.
Belgium likely underestimated Japan’s efficacy in those areas, so lackadaisical were they in cutting off space in Rostov, and while Coutinho will be afforded more respect the Barcelona midfielder will like what he will have seen.
Takashi Inui’s superb strike is almost meat and drink to Coutinho, who averages 4.3 shots per game and already has a similar effort for his World Cup portfolio from the game against Switzerland.
Kevin De Bruyne is of the same silky ilk but sits deeper with Belgium than he does for Manchester City and that has curbed some of his effectiveness.
The wonderful counter-attack he sparked to set up Belgium’s late, late winner versus Japan was the first time we’ve truly seen a trademark De Bruyne moment in Russia.
When he plays alongside a safe but limited Axel Witsel in a midfield two, he has more responsibility to sit back – particularly with how recklessly attacking Belgium can be under Roberto Martinez.
De Bruyne might have some more freedom in which to operate against Brazil, with Casemiro out and the Canarinho’s own tendencies to pour forward, but a shrewd Tite is bound to have a plan to keep the shackles on Belgium’s chief playmaker.
MARCELO v YANNICK CARRASCO
Marcelo was not risked in the sapping heat in Samara as Tite treats his back injury with kid gloves, but he’ll be relishing the prospect of exploiting Belgium’s open flanks.
Though he started the game admirably, 20-year-old Mexico full-back Edson Alvarez was eventually taken to school by Neymar and that was without the usual support of the marauding Marcelo.
Thomas Meunier, a defender by trade, should be fairly well-equipped to tackle that particular challenge but worryingly he’s conceded fouls at a rate more than any other Belgian – an average of 2.7 per game.
If Marcelo is fit enough to replace a solid but unspectacular Filipe Luis, and he, Neymar and Coutinho start weaving triangles, then it’s difficult to see how the Red Devils will be able to keep the Canarinho at bay.
On the other side Yannick Carrasco’s place on the left for Belgium is under threat after going walkabouts defensively for much of the game against Japan.
At times he could barely be seen on screen as Japan were given the freedom of Rostov down that side – with left-sided centre-back Jan Vertonghen crying out for help. The ruthlessly direct Willian is sure to cut a repeat performance to ribbons
Given that Nacer Chadli came on in his stead and scored the winning goal at the death, there is no guarantee he will get a second chance.
Carrasco and Chadli have both had their moments up the other end of the pitch, however, and while Fagner has been quietly effective for Brazil this will most certainly be his acid test.
Cavani scored both goals in Uruguay’s 2-1 last-16 win over Portugal before being helped off the pitch by Cristiano Ronaldo after picking up a calf problem.
The Paris Saint-Germain player trained separately from his team-mates on Thursday ahead of Friday’s last-eight clash with Les Bleus in Nizhny Novgorod.
Tabarez believes the media have been given sufficient information about Cavani’s condition and is unhappy about constant speculation and the perceived agendas of some journalists.
“We issued a press release explaining exactly what kind of exams he had to go through and nobody respected it. People started asking other professionals, people who are not here and don’t know what is going on,” said Tabarez at his pre-match press conference.
“I’m not going to say anything else about Cavani because I have already given enough information and I don’t want to get into games that are convenient for certain journalists who have a style I don’t share.
“In less than 24 hours you will know who will play and who will be on the bench.
“I’m not going to change my mind. We don’t want to create any doubts or rumours.
“I apologise, I am not telling you that information. I cannot give you all of my information as I do not get all the information from the French team.”
Cavani’s absence would be a massive blow for the two-time winners.
The 31-year-old has continued his prolific partnership with Luis Suarez in Russia, scoring three times to help his team record four successive victories.
Tabarez, who is set to take charge of his 186th game as national team manager and 21st at the World Cup, has been impressed with his top-scorer’s attempts to regain fitness.
“He’s very sad because he’s suffering an injury during the World Cup – he’s a very important player for us and he was playing very well,” added the 71-year-old.
“As soon as he got injured, he started working hard to recover.
“He is concentrating on his dreams and his hopes, and that’s what he’s doing right now.”
Tabarez is aiming to lead Uruguay to the semi-finals of the tournament for the second time following their fourth-placed finish in South Africa in 2010.
France, world champions in 1998, are also unbeaten following their first four games and will provide a stern test.
A semi-final against Brazil or Belgium awaits the winner, and Tabarez believes his underdogs can cause an upset.
“We are playing against very strong opponents. French football is very strong in general but this team specifically is really, really strong,” he said.
“It’s not going to be easy and we’re not conceited at all but we don’t think it’s impossible; it’s difficult but not impossible.
“We’ll see what happens. There is a chance and that’s what we are going to focus on, that’s what we believe.”