SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) — France’s first match at its home ground since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris ended with a 4-2 victory over Russia in a friendly game at the Stade de France on Tuesday.
N’Golo Kante celebrated his 25th birthday with his first international goal, putting the hosts in front with a clean finish after being set up by Antoine Griezmann.
Andre-Pierre Gignac, Dimitri Payet and Kingsley Coman scored France’s other goals while Aleksandr Kokorin and Yuri Zhirkov were on the scoresheet for Russia.
Security around the stadium was tight following the bombings on Nov. 13, when 130 people were killed on a night of attacks in Paris. Suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium during France’s friendly against Germany, killing one bystander.
On Tuesday, after a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the Brussels bombings and a Marseillaise sung at full volume, the focus was all on the football.
In the absence of Karim Benzema, who is suspended from selection because of his involvement in an alleged blackmail case targeting teammate Mathieu Valbuena, France played with attacking flair – but also showed defensive frailties that helped Russia twice reduce the deficit.
Kante, whose tackles and interceptions have helped Leicester to the top of the Premier League standings this season in England, was given his maiden start by France coach Didier Deschamps after earning his first cap in a 3-2 win at The Netherlands last week.
“It was not easy for him, but he played without being hung-up,” said Deschamps. “This is just the beginning. He is building on the momentum of what he has been doing with his club at international level. It’s good for him, and for the team.”
Kante didn’t waste much time on Tuesday. After he won the ball in midfield, Paul Pogba quickly found Gignac on the right side, with the former Marseille striker releasing the ball for Griezmann. The Atletico forward slipped but managed to pass to Kante, who beat goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev from close range with a low shot after only eight minutes.
Deschamps made six changes to the team that won against the Dutch, as captain Hugo Lloris returned in goal. Bacary Sagna started on the right flank of the back four and Deschamps paired Mamadou Sakho and Raphael Varane in central defense.
Russia struggled to move the ball outside its own half after Kante’s opener and striker Artem Dzyuba wasn’t given a single scoring chance during the first half.
France made it 2-0 in the 38th minute after Aleksandr Kokorin was booked for a dangerous tackle on Patrice Evra. Griezmann took the free kick and crossed for Gignac, who scored with a diving header at the near post.
With less than three months before the European Championship, Gignac’s appetite for goal was also clearly on display after the interval, when he sent a header just over the bar.
However, France’s first setback of the night came in the 54th minute when substitute Jeremy Mathieu was forced to leave the pitch with an apparent right knee injury. Three minutes later, the hosts’ defense was caught napping when Kokorin jumped higher than Lucas Digne to connect with a free kick from Alan Dzagoev and head home past Lloris.
France refused to panic and substitute Koman went on a fine run in midfield, dribbling past two players before being fouled. Payet showed his class with a sumptuous 30-meter free kick that hit the post before crossing the line, two minutes after coming in a substitute.
Once again, though, France let Russia back into the game when Zhirkov slotted home from Oleg Shatov’s pass.
Deschamps downplayed France’s lack of defensive discipline, saying Russia was a dangerous opponent.
“They qualified for the Euro and have qualities,” Deschamps said. “They are dangerous on set-pieces and on the second goal they linked up a beautiful move. Fortunately everything was not perfect, we have room for improvement.”
Coman ensured that France’s return to the Stade de France finished on a positive note with his classy finish. Fed by Payet on the right side of the box, the 19-year-old Bayern winger collected the ball, rounded substitute keeper Yuri Lodygin and fired into the back of the net.