John Brewin: Raphael Varane is leading the revival of central defending

Our expert football writer feels it’s time Raphael Varane was recognised as one of the game's leading lights in his position…

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Every World Cup winning team needs a heroic, commanding defender.

Four years ago, Germany’s Jerome Boateng was imperious in Rio as Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero et were snuffed out.

In 2010, Spain’s tiki taka was formed on the bedrock of Carles Puyol’s aggression and leadership, and four years before that, Fabio Cannavaro was recognised as the best player in the entire tournament as Italy claimed the crown, even if Zinedine Zidane was actually awarded the official “Golden Ball”.

It is a lineage that takes in players like Jose Luis Brown of Argentina in 1986 and compatriot Daniel Passarella in 1978, Franz Beckenbauer in 1974 and for Englishmen, no player signifies 1966 more than the late, great Bobby Moore.

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Russia 2018 has seen a revival of the art of central defence, something that appeared lost in recent years in the light of the game’s power-brokers repeatedly tilting the rules in favour of attackers, while Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo plunder goals at the rate of pre-Second World War forwards like Dixie Dean.

In Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, Uruguay had a classic pairing, while England’s Harry Maguire won his cult heroism by being a defender of time-honoured Yorkshire values and having a gossamer touch for a big man. Croatia’s reaching of the final owes much to Dejan Lovren’s self-belief and Domagoj Vida’s refusal to be beaten down.

But, the best defending in the tournament has come from Didier Deschamps’ France, where his back line, barring that 4-3 helter-skelter of a victory over Argentina, have been imperious.

Australia, via a penalty, are the only other opponent to have breached the French. To think that Deschamps and many in France were concerned that Les Bleus would be bereft once Laurent Koscielny was ruled out of the tournament.

Instead, they have Samuel Umiti and Raphael Varane, 24 and 25 respectively, but combining like veterans as a central pair comprising players from either side of the Barcelona and Real Madrid divide.

Varane’s speed, presence of thought and composure mark him out as one of the very best, and within an inexperienced defence – with Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez at full-back – he is echoing the inspirational performances that Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc produced when his country won its first World Cup twenty years ago.

At times, he has been a combination of those forefathers, with the calmness of Blanc, and the power of Desailly. He has won 72.7 per cent of the aerial duels in which he’s taken on so far and in the final will need to be on his mettle to cope with the aerial power of Mario Mandzukic, that did for the English on Wednesday.

If France win the title on Sunday, they will have done so through Deschamps’ dedication to control rather than the adventure that most managers would employ with Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe to hand.

That sense of security owes much to having N’Golo Kante prowling the midfield, but Varane has been dominant, and a match-winner himself, having scored the first goal in the quarter-final with Uruguay, outfoxing Godin and Gimenez in doing so.

If the FIFA technical committee and members of the media who vote for the best player were to abandon their historic bias against defensive players – none has won it since Uruguay captain Jose Nasazzi in 1930 – then Varane has to be a prime candidate.

Can a player who has won four Champions League medals and played 233 times for Real Madrid really be an overnight sensation?

Perhaps not, but Russia has been where quiet man Varane has come of age, pushing himself to the forefront, having previously been something of a junior partner for club and country. Back in 2014, his own inexperience as a 21-year-old showed in being beaten to the header with which Germany’s Mats Hummels put France out at the quarter-final stage.

He is not nearly so callow now.

At Real Madrid, Varane had to wait his turn to unseat the veteran Pepe and start alongside Sergio Ramos, the mob boss who rules the roost at the Santiago Bernabeu.

His class has never been in doubt, right from the point Real took him as an 18-year-old from Lens who had played just a single season for the Ligue 1 club in his home territory of northern France.

It was Jose Mourinho who was Real’s manager when Varane was signed back then, and the pair have maintained a good relationship since.

Mourinho remains an admirer and his search to supplant Chris Smalling and Phil Jones from Manchester United’s defence has an ideal, if almost certainly unreachable candidate in Varane, who in Russia has marked himself out as priceless, the defender any manager would covet.

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