Fellaini v Pogba and the problem of playing a club-mate for your country | Marcel Desailly | Football

The France-Belgium World Cup semi-final on Tuesday is one the whole world is looking forward to. Two teams full of talent and a 1998 world champion on each bench – the France manager, Didier Deschamps, and our old friend Thierry Henry alongside Roberto Martínez with the Belgians.

Many eyes will be on them. But once the preparation is over and the final words pronounced, it is over to the players and one of the big clashes will be between two big players in midfield. Big in every sense of the word. Paul Pogba is coming up against his Manchester United team-mate Marouane Fellaini.

I admit I have been surprised by Fellaini. He was not in the starting lineup at the start of the tournament but he has forced his way in. The way he plays allows Belgium to free up Kevin De Bruyne and that is the solution that Martínez seems to have settled on.

It makes sense, especially when you look at the way De Bruyne played against Japan – when he was supposed to share defensive midfield responsibilities with Axel Witsel. If you look closely at Japan’s second goal against Belgium you will see Witsel scuttling from one opponent to another to try to prevent Shinji Kagawa getting into a shooting position while De Bruyne is literally barely even walking, just a few metres away, looking on like a spectator.

I am sure that was the moment Martínez realised the idea of having De Bruyne in that position was not going to work. Fortunately for him and for Belgium, De Bruyne played a major role in the winning goal in that game but by then Martínez had already brought on Fellaini and the big man had scored and added a real presence alongside Witsel.

Tactically Belgium look much better balanced with Fellaini in a holding role and I thought he had a really good game against Brazil. He is a much better footballer than many people think and maybe the way he has been used in recent times at Manchester United has not helped him. I remember games with Everton when he was more of a playmaker, very much at ease with the ball at his feet and the game in front of him. He knows how to drift between attack and midfield and he has a very good conservation of the ball – Brazil never found a way round him and he has quick feet for such a big player. He has had to simplify his game, a little similar to the way Pogba has had to rein in some of his attacking instincts for the good of the team.

Fellaini’s work rate and tactical nous gave De Bruyne licence to roam against Brazil, the United man helping the City player to be able to exploit the spaces he needs to link up play and create danger. Pogba, too, has been impressive in the way he has adapted his game since the start of the World Cup. I wrote previously here about how he needed to control his natural exuberance for the good of the team and I think he has done this remarkably well in the last two games.

Very intelligently he has understood that France can count on the attacking wiles of Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann to unlock games and that his role, therefore, is to provide balance alongside the tireless N’Golo Kanté in the midfield two. I have really liked what I have seen from Pogba in the games against Argentina and Uruguay – a tactical maturity allied to his natural talent. Simple passes when the situation called for it against the Uruguayans and long, raking ones for Mbappé to chase against the Argentinians.

Playing against your club team-mate for an international match, or vice versa, is a rather strange situation to find yourself in. Fellaini and Pogba may come face to face during this semi-final and it could be a real clash of the titans. But they will not be the only ones in that situation. Kanté might well find himself keeping a close eye on his Chelsea team-mate Eden Hazard and, who knows, perhaps Olivier Giroud will have to take a penalty against Thibaut Courtois.

These things happen sometimes and it is not always easy for the players. I have two good examples: I can remember a Premier League game between Arsenal and Chelsea in which Thierry Henry was giving me a hard time. He scored a goal after shrugging me aside and I felt a need to react. I went up to him after the goal celebrations had died down and calmly suggested he switched flanks because I was getting a bit annoyed and I did not want to run the risk of injuring him.

It is a natural reaction from a defender – you want to make your presence felt, particularly when you feel as if you are in difficulty. Anyway, he switched flanks and that was the end of that. But, generally, on the field you have to try to forget that you are friends.

Thierry will be on the Belgium bench for this semi-final with France. Naturally it is strange for us to see him on the other side but I have no problem with that. He is working, he has a job to do. It must be tough for him being on a mission to help another country beat France but I respect the fact he is just doing his job. And, as far as I know, nobody offered him a similar job with France, so there you go.

Coming back to the teammates situation, here is one more tale. In recent weeks in France there has been a lot of talk about 1998 because of the 20th anniversary of our World Cup victory and that reminded us all of the penalty shootout against Italy in the quarter-finals.

At the time a lot of people were surprised to see the two youngsters, Henry and David Trezeguet, stepping up and scoring, particularly because Youri Djorkaeff, our main star alongside Zinedine Zidane, did not take one. But Youri was a teammate of Italy’s Gianluca Pagliuca and, as he told the guys who made the recent documentary film looking back at 1998, the Internazionale goalkeeper had been saving all his penalties in training! I hope Giroud does not find himself in a similar situation against Courtois on Tuesday night.

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