Paul Pogba finally delivered the big-game goal that France needed from its most exciting young talent, picking his spot with a late header to help his team beat Nigeria 2-0 and reach the World Cup quarterfinals.
The 21-year-old Pogba had been feeling the pressure at the World Cup, and that seemed set to continue Monday when he rushed a chance to put France ahead in a tightly-contested first half.
But Pogba, who was dropped by coach Didier Deschamps for the 5-2 win group-stage win over Switzerland, found the ideal time to score.
Showing the kind of poise that Deschamps counted on him to provide, Pogba peeled slightly off a packed Nigeria defense to give himself a yard to attack the loose ball after goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama fumbled a corner in the 79th minute.
Overwhelmed with relief at finally scoring his first goal of the tournament, Pogba shed a tear after the final whistle before being mobbed by his teammates.
“I was man of the match today but if I could give it to all the players I would. It’s because of them that we won,” he said. “We know we’re capable of playing our best and playing our worst, but today we were good. We are the French national team and we are not afraid of anyone.”
Pogba had set himself apart for different reasons earlier in the tournament.
In the opening match against Honduras, he was lucky not to be sent off for kicking out angrily at fellow midfielder Wilson Palacios after he had been fouled. That prompted rebukes from Deschamps, defender Patrice Evra and captain Hugo Lloris –all of them saying Pogba needed to learn how to control his nerves better.
Then, in the 0-0 draw against Ecuador, he missed a glaring header from close range when totally unmarked. French critics made it clear they’d been expecting more from Pogba, who scored seven league goals for Italian champion Juventus last season.
“He’s young, criticism is part of life at the highest level and it can be unfair sometimes. But it will toughen him up,” Deschamps said. “Today he showed the huge potential he has when he plays a bit more simply. He should get the credit, but I have no doubts about his capacity to play at this level.”
Against Nigeria, Pogba won tackles easily but his ball distribution was lacking. He gave the ball away four times in the first 10 minutes by trying to play the perfect pass.
But the fact he was so easily in position to attempt those passes underlined the command he had in midfield.
“Paul is already playing at a very, very high level. Of course he can still improve a lot because he’s young and he’ll continue to learn,” Lloris said. “I think this goal will give him even more confidence. But, still, what’s he doing at his age is huge.”
Germany 1, Algeria 0: Substitute Andre Schuerrle and Mesut Ozil scored in extra time Monday to lead Germany over an aggressive Algeria 2-1 and into the World Cup quarterfinals.
Thomas Mueller provided a cross from the left flank that was slightly behind Schuerrle. The Germany forward dragged his leg and backheeled the ball into the far corner in the 92nd minute, leaving goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi with no chance.
Ozil added the second in the 120th, and Abdelmoumene Djabou pulled one back in injury time for Algeria.
Germany will next face France on Friday at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.