BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) - 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.”
Fellow midfielder Blaise Matuidi thinks Pogba had been putting too much pressure on himself to live up to pre-World Cup hype touting him as one of the potential stars of the tournament.
“I hope this goal releases him, but today he gave the best possible answer. He also puts himself under pressure, which he perhaps shouldn’t because he’s only 21,” Matuidi said. “Of course we need his talent and he gives us a lot, but he remains a young player and he’s allowed to make mistakes.”
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.”