Tireless Matuidi set for central role against Germany
Blaise Matuidi is lucky to be able to play in France's World Cup quarter-final against Germany, but his presence on the field at the Maracana Stadium on Friday will be vital for Les Bleus.
The 27-year-old was fortunate to escape with just a yellow card in Monday's last-16 win against Nigeria when a crunching tackle on Ogenyi Onazi left his opponent with a nasty ankle injury.
Matuidi went into the Nigeria dressing room after France's 2-0 win in Brasilia to apologise for the challenge.
Indeed, it was decidedly uncharacteristic of a player who is less known for his aggression than for his tireless running in midfield and who is now as indispensable for his country as he is for French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
He will win his 28th cap for France as they look to get the better of a German side who are among the favourites to lift the trophy and finally earn revenge for painful defeats suffered by Les Bleus in the World Cup semi-finals of 1982 and 1986.
Matuidi, who scored in the 5-2 group-stage win against Switzerland in Salvador, forms a classy midfield trident with Yohan Cabaye and Paul Pogba, a trio that offers passing ability, energy and pace along with a goalscoring threat.
Germany's midfield has dominated games so far, with Toni Kroos and Philipp Lahm among the leading players in the competition for passes completed, but they have yet to face opposition of the quality of France.
Matuidi has made more passes than any of his colleagues, and covers more distance too, his stamina showing no sign of letting-up as he prepares to play in a 66th game for club and country since the start of the season.
"Germany are the favourites because of their past record. But anything can happen in one match," warns Matuidi, who recalled featuring in the France team that lost 2-1 to Joachim Loew's side in a friendly in Paris last year.
"(Mesut) Ozil was their playmaker and we played in a 4-4-2. He slipped in between the lines and gave us all sorts of problems. But we have improved since then and this will be a different match."
- Feet on the ground -
Matuidi, who grew up supporting PSG and eventually joined the capital side from Saint-Etienne in 2011, has cited Jay-Jay Okocha as his boyhood hero and Claude Makelele as his role-model.
But while one was an outrageously talented playmaker and the other became known as the prototype holding midfielder of the last decade, Matuidi is the perfect example of the modern-day box-to-box player.
"My role is to break in behind the first line of defence. We always say, when you get the ball, you need to quickly drive forward. I try to make as many good runs as possible in order to get into interesting positions. That makes me more decisive," he told France's sports daily L'Equipe.
He has added goals to his game at PSG, becoming a fixture in the side that has won the last two Ligue 1 titles, and he was rewarded earlier this year with a new contract running through to 2018.
News of that deal came as a disappointment to his many suitors across Europe, but Matuidi has always kept his feet on the ground and never forgets where he came from.
"My mother and father come from Angola. They left the country due to the war there and spent some time in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) before trying their luck in Europe," he says.
He adds that he is very proud of his Angolan origins, but that "deep down, I always wanted to play for France."
"Playing at this World Cup is already a dream come true," he says, and Matuidi can cement his place in French footballing folklore by helping Les Bleus make it to the semi-finals, where the hosts Brazil could await.
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