Far away seem the days when Paul Pogba was praised for the mature displays that helped France win the World Cup.
For the Manchester United midfielder, the euphoria that engulfed French players following their title lasted only a few weeks as he fell out with coach Jose Mourinho on his return to Old Trafford.
Pogba’s relationship with Mourinho has been complicated since his return to United in 2016. But it reached its nadir last month when Pogba was stripped of the vice-captaincy at the club and then appeared to have a spat with Mourinho at practice.
Following a poor start to the season, United is under pressure and Pogba’s future there seems uncertain amid reports he could leave.
Such concerns are irrelevant when Pogba plays with his national team, and the international break is likely to provide solace to a player regarded as indispensable by France coach Didier Deschamps.
Pogba joined his teammates at France’s training ground ahead of Thursday’s friendly game against Iceland. France, which beat Croatia in the World Cup final in July, hosts Germany in the UEFA Nations League on Oct. 16 at Stade de France.
“I don’t want to interfere with the relationship that he, or any other player, could have with his coach,” Deschamps said. “But given the situation of some (players) in their clubs, the breath of fresh air brought by the France team can do them good.”
Often criticized for his laid-back approach, Pogba took more responsibilities in France during the World Cup and is now regarded as a proper team leader. Pogba is crediting Deschamps, who uses him on the pitch in a less restricted role than Mourinho, for his positive influence.
“I have a very good relationship with the coach, he speaks straight to me,” Pogba said.
Here is a look at other talking points ahead of this week’s international matches:
The last time Croatia played England was in the packed Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in a World Cup semifinal match. When they meet in the Croatian coastal city of Rijeka on Friday, there will be no fans.
Croatia is completing a stadium ban imposed by UEFA in 2015 when a swastika was painted on its field ahead of a game.
Italy is in desperate need of a victory at Poland on Sunday to avoid more embarrassment after failing to qualify for the last World Cup.
The Azzurri already sit last in its Nations League group with only one point and one goal scored from their opening two matches — a 1-1 draw with Poland and a 1-0 loss to Portugal.
Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne is being tapped for a “false 9” role amid a series of problems for the usual center forwards.
Mario Balotelli and Andrea Belotti have been dropped due to poor form while Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza have struggled with the national team.
FALLEN CHAMPS REBUILD
Germany is still searching for its way back after its disastrous World Cup defense in Russia. Joachim Loew’s squad drew 0-0 with France last month in a game in Munich that did little to assure fans it will be challenging again for titles anytime soon.
If anything, the game just highlighted the absence of Mesut Ozil, who retired from international football after feeling he was made the scapegoat for the German team’s disappointing performances in Russia. While Loew wanted his side to display more defensive stability, it failed to convince going forward.
Loew experimented with five changes in the subsequent 2-1 friendly win over Peru, but the pressure is on to show real progress is being made in the games against the Netherlands and France.
With Cristiano Ronaldo out again, Portugal’s attack will be relying on Andre Silva, the Sevilla striker who has been thriving in the Spanish league.
Silva, playing on a loan from AC Milan, has seven goals in eight league matches so far. Silva scored Portugal’s winner in the 1-0 win over Italy in the team’s Nations League debut and is set to start in the match at Poland on Friday. Ronaldo hasn’t played for Portugal since the World Cup and isn’t expected to be back until next year.
Spain will be depleted when it hosts England on Monday with a chance to practically secure a spot in the Nations League’s final four.
Some key players will be absent because of injuries, including Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, Dani Carvajal, Sergi Roberto and Diego Costa.
BEST OF THE REST
Russia returns to Sochi, where the World Cup host lost a quarterfinals penalty shootout against Croatia, to play Turkey on Sunday in Group 2 of League B. Russia first hosts Sweden in Kaliningrad on Thursday.
In B3, Bosnia-Herzegovina goes for a third straight when Northern Ireland visits on Monday.
In League C, Group 4 co-leaders Montenegro and Serbia meet in Podgorica on Thursday. The Balkan neighbors joined together as one team at the 2006 World Cup.
In League D, teams with two wins last month include Georgia which next hosts Andorra, Luxembourg playing at Belarus, and Macedonia hosting Liechtenstein.
One of the longest journeys in European soccer faces Azerbaijan — about 4,400 kilometers (2,750 miles) to play at the Faroe islands on Thursday.
Source: The Associated Press