Pitchside Europe

Little magician key for France in crunch match with Spain

When Marseille took on Paris Saint-Germain in the second Classique of the Ligue 1 season last month, they were unlucky to suffer a 2-0 defeat at the Parc des Princes.

For all the expensively-assembled attacking talent in the capital team's ranks, Marseille dominated possession and Mathieu Valbuena was one of the standout players on the field. But for Salvatore Sirigu in the PSG goal, OM would surely have returned south with something to show for their efforts.

Valbuena may be less than 5ft 6in tall, but he has made his presence felt in plenty of big games for his club in the recent past.

Now he is starting to do the same for his country. On Friday, as France beat Georgia 3-1 in a World Cup qualifier, he scored a magnificent goal in between two assists.

His statistics now speak for themselves. He has scored in each of his country's last three matches, from a fantastic solo effort against Italy last November to a headed goal against Germany last month.

After winning his first cap at the age of 25, he made his 20th appearance for his country against Georgia, and has scored five goals in that time. His scoring rate compares very favourably with Karim Benzema, the supposed star of the side who has scored just twice in his last 16 games for Les Bleus - and both of those in a friendly against Estonia.

Valbuena's form suggests that France no longer need to rely on Benzema and Franck Ribéry to make the difference. Their fans now recognise that, too. When he was substituted on Friday, he was given a huge ovation by the Paris crowd.

"Thanks to my determination and my humility, I now feel at ease in this team," said Valbuena on Friday. National coach Didier Deschamps knew him well from his time spent at Marseille, and he has helped the player flourish when predecessor Laurent Blanc was reluctant to give him a chance at last summer's European Championship.

Known as the 'Little Bike', or 'Le Petit Velo', Valbuena has been excellent on the right of midfield for France, drifting inside when necessary. For his club, his role is the opposite, but just as effective, starting in the middle but often appearing in a wide position where he can deliver crosses for the likes of André Ayew and André-Pierre Gignac.

He made his 200th top-flight appearance in the recent 0-0 draw with Ajaccio at the Stade Vélodrome. Seeing him reach such a landmark stirred memories of the days when Valbuena was anything but a hero for club or country, dismissed by the south-coast side's fans for being a wholly inadequate replacement for Bayern Munich-bound Ribéry.

He was after all a reject from the Bordeaux youth academy who was forced to work his way up from the amateur fifth tier after seeing his dreams of success with his local club turn to dust. "There were doubts about me because of my size," he says. "I really wanted to break through there. It was a big blow. At the age of 18, my whole world fell apart."

But he picked himself up again and was soon starring for Libourne-Saint-Seurin, with whom he was named the best player in the French third division. That led to his move to Marseille in 2006, which was a huge step forward. His former team-mate Ronald Zubar, now a close friend, recently said: "When he arrived at OM, he suffered from the comparisons with Ribéry, who had also worked his way up from the lower leagues."

And yet he has won over the sceptics in style. Valbuena's first league goal for Marseille, in May 2007, secured a 2-1 win at Saint-Etienne that took OM into the Champions League. The next season, he scored a magnificent goal to beat Liverpool at Anfield, and he also scored on his international debut, in a friendly win against Costa Rica just before the 2010 World Cup.

Of course, he is not naturally a scorer of goals, but is a serial provider. Only Eden Hazard laid on more in Ligue 1 last season, while only Lille's Dimitri Payet has beaten Valbuena's tally of eight in the current campaign. Now he is proving himself on the highest stage of all, to the point that Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque has highlighted him as one of France's biggest threats in Tuesday's World Cup qualifier between the countries.

The 28-year-old, whose father hails from Spain, will be relishing this latest big occasion. It is hard to imagine now that Valbuena was almost lost to the professional game completely.

Andy Scott - Follow on Twitter @andpscott