In the 18th minute of the last World Cup final, a deft free-kick from Antoine Griezmann opened the scoring, forcing an own goal that put France in control.
It’s rare sight these days to see Griezmann on the pitch so early in a fixture.
In that final Croatia would equalise 10 minutes later, but on a see-saw, thrilling night in Moscow, France mostly posed the harder questions.
Before half-time Blaise Matuidi’s pressure in the penalty box, as Griezmann applied his set-piece expertise again from a corner, provoked another error, a handball by Ivan Perisic, Griezmann converting the penalty.
Matuidi? He has not appeared on any pitch, anywhere since January and, at 35 and without a club, he edges towards his official retirement.
Goal number three in France’s 4-2 victory was a wonderful strike, set up by Griezmann for Paul Pogba to apply precision and power to a shot from the edge of the penalty area. Pogba was a headliner in this summer’s transfer window with the second move of his career from Manchester United to Juventus, but has not seen any competitive action at all since early April and because of his decision to delay, then belatedly undergo surgery on a knee problem, may not play for Juve this calendar year.
All of which preys on the mind of the coach, Didier Deschamps, who guided France to that World Cup triumph and has cherished the methods and many of the players who participated in the final. Various of them are out of sorts, one way or another, making Deschamps acutely aware of the relative powerlessness of the manager in international football.
France beat Croatia 4-2 in 2018 World Cup final - in pictures
He’d like to see more of Griezmann in action at weekends. But the 31-year-old has spent his club season, at Atletico Madrid, so far in a bizarre situation, constrained by Atletico’s posture towards Griezmann’s parent club, Barcelona. The Catalans loaned him back to Atletico, where he previously spent five years, 13 months ago on a two-year deal that included a clause that said he would be permanently transferred for €40 million if he played more than half the matches he was available for.
A "match" is defined as meaning at least 45 minutes on the pitch. Having played 81 per cent of his available games in 2021-22 for Atletico, the club gave orders, in August, to head coach Diego Simeone that for the time being, Griezmann should play less than 45 minutes each game if possible.
Like clockwork, the France star has been coming on after the 60th minute, game after game, until a rare start in Sunday’s defeat in the Madrid derby. Atletico’s intention is to pressure Barcelona into lowering the sale price by threatening that they may get no transfer fee at all.
Deschamps, who has capped Griezmann 108 times, would prefer the forward to build his momentum to the World Cup in a less stop-start way, but can only shrug at how a squabble between clubs is affecting a key player.
France win 2021 Nations League final - in pictures
“Well,” he suggested, calling up Griezmann for the two Uefa Nations League matches – against Austria and Denmark – that represent the last gathering before World Cup training begins in November, “at least he won’t be tired. You have to look for the good side of his situation.”
Positives are harder to be found in Pogba’s long layoff and the chances of a midfielder who for most of the past six years has been more reliably dynamic for France than he was for United being in the best condition come late November are dwindling. After his surgery earlier this month an eight-week recuperation was forecast. Juventus say they do not expect to see him in action for them until January.
There is concern too, about the prospects for N’Golo Kante, the motor of Les Bleus in the summer of 2018. The Chelsea midfielder has missed, through injury, more than half his possible France matches in the period since then. Kante is on a long list of absentees for this fortnight’s gathering.
Karim Benzema, recalled by Deschamps last year after a five-year gap in his international career because he and the head coach had fallen out, is recovering from a muscle problem.
Likewise Lucas Hernandez, the Bayern Munich defender and a starter in the Moscow final. The obvious replacement for Hernandez, Presnel Kimpembe, of Paris Saint-Germain, suffered a hamstring injury that could keep him on the sidelines until the very end of October. Juventus’s Adrien Rabiot, best placed, in terms of his seniority, to cover some of the Pogba-Kante gap, is also out.
Croatia beat France 2-1 in Nations League - in pictures
One blessing for Deschamps, who could be replaced by Zinedine Zidane after the World Cup, is that the Nations League matches were already a canvas for experimenting, for exploring alternatives to his tried-and-tested line-up for Qatar, where the group opponents will be Australia, Tunisia and Denmark.
That’s because the Nations League campaign has fallen flat already, with just two points yielded from four games.
Les Bleus were the Nations League title-holders, too, before they embarked on this edition of the Uefa tournament. Their insipid showing in their defence of it is a reminder that, however strong France’s resources seem on paper, they need key men fit and in form to still look like champions.