N’Golo Kante celebrated his birthday with a goal on his first international start to set France up for a 4-2 friendly win against Russia on an emotional return to the Stade de France on Tuesday.
Kante opened the scoring just eight minutes into his full debut for Les Bleus and Andre-Pierre Gignac doubled the lead before Alexander Kokorin headed in for Russia in the second half.
Dimitri Payet then demonstrated how important he can be to the French side with a stunning free-kick just after the hour mark, and Kingsley Coman netted in equally spectacular fashion after Yuri Zhirkov added another goal for the Russians in an entertaining contest.
Despite the goals conceded, it was a very encouraging win for the Euro 2016 hosts on the night international football came back to the Stade de France just over four months on from the terror attacks that took place just outside the ground and elsewhere in Paris.
“There were lots of good things. Not everything was perfect but this is a team that likes to get forward. The players link up well and we have lots of pace,” said France coach Didier Deschamps, whose side had recorded a 3-2 victory in the Netherlands on Friday.
“They are only friendly matches but we need to win them. It’s good for confidence, for our serenity, but the truth will come in June.”
With November’s events still fresh in the memory, security was extremely tight for a game played in front of a crowd of around 65,000, including French president Francois Hollande, at the stadium that will host the European Championship final in July.
And fortunately this time the football took centre stage as Deschamps’s team displayed why they must be considered among the favourites to win the title on home soil.
Leicester City sensation Kante had made his France debut from the bench against the Netherlands and was handed a first start here as Deschamps made six changes to his line-up.
On his 25th birthday, he needed barely eight minutes to get his first international goal, arriving late in the penalty box and coolly finishing past Igor Akinfeev at the end of an excellent move that featured Paul Pogba, Gignac and Antoine Griezmann.
The second goal arrived nine minutes before half-time, with Gignac — now playing his club football in Mexico — putting forward his case for a berth in the France squad as he met Griezmann’s free-kick from the left with a fine diving header at the near post.
A strong Russia side made up largely of players from leading clubs CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg were disappointing in the first half but they got a goal back 11 minutes into the second period when Kokorin escaped his marker to head in an Alan Dzagoev free-kick.
Just before that, France had seen substitute Jeremy Mathieu hobble off only eight minutes after his introduction, but two other replacements had a far more positive impact on the game.
West Ham United star Payet, like Kante one of the players of the season in the English Premier League, curled in a brilliant free-kick only moments after coming off the bench.
Bayern Munich’s teenage winger Coman, also on from the bench, had won the free-kick that led to that goal and he got his name on the scoresheet with a stunning finish from a tight angle after rounding substitute goalkeeper Yuri Lodygin.
In between those two strikes, Zhirkov netted from an Oleg Shatov cutback but the goals conceded were a rare black mark on a positive night for France in their final match before Deschamps names his 23-man squad for the Euros in May.