As they were confronted by a vibrant, crackling Stade de France on the opening night of Euro 2016 against Romania, N’Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet must have acknowledged how far-fetched this all was.
A shade under 10 months ago, Kante came off the bench for his second appearance in a Leicester City shirt shortly after Payet pulled a goal back in a match West Ham would lose 2-1.
That cause and effect seemed to be the most likely thing the two Frenchmen would have in common this season – Kante an unknown making his first steps in the Premier League, where the mercurial Payet was making a fresh start in the division and about to contemplate being dropped by national team boss Didier Deschamps.
An unheralded signing from Caen, Kante quickly went from substitute to indispensable fulcrum of the most unlikely Premier League winners in history, while Payet – the open-play artist and dead-ball assassin – joined him among the nominees for the PFA Player of the Year award.
In Kante, Deschamps saw a midfield operator in his own image, while Payet’s persistent brilliance meant he could no longer ignore a man with whom he did not always see eye-to-eye.
They were deserved starters before an expectant home nation and the men Deschamps could thank for quelling a shaky start where Bogdan Stancu should have given Romania an early lead.
Adrian Popa and Nicolae Stanciu encapsulated the visitors’ early ambition but, as he has shown countless Premier League creatives this term, Kante soon made it clear he was not about to be dictated terms.
The 25-year-old smoothly broke up a seventh-minute Romanian attack to set France on their way, instantly at home on the biggest stage.
He controlled possession and tempo masterfully during the early exchanges and, having laid the foundations for Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy countless times, Kante was the chief stage hand for Saint-Denis’ opening-night production of The Dimitri Payet Show.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 10, 2016
Oh, how the playmaker thrived.
France’s opener arriving from a Payet cross in the 57th minute felt like the most natural thing in the world as the star-studded hosts turned to him time and again for inspiration.
There was quicksilver footwork as Olivier Giroud headed wide at the near post and a pinpoint low delivery for Antoine Griezmann to steer agonisingly wide – shining moment that garnished a first-half display where Payet schemed and dazzled.
He kept appearing where Romania least expected early in the second half. Each time, they were petrified to see him.
He set up Giroud to shoot too close to Romania goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, who saved excellently from a Paul Pogba volley.
It required a cross from Payet to draw a memorable contribution from the much-vaunted Juventus powerhouse, whose well-struck shot was almost a footnote to the trickery with which his team-mate left Ovidiu Hoban careering on the seat of his shorts.
When the resulting corner was cleared back to Payet, he swooped in his latest unerring delivery – among an astonishing eight key passes – and Giroud was tearing away to be mobbed by all-but-one of his team-mates near the French dugout. Payet remained on the flank, arms outstretched, to soak in his deserved adulation.
— Equipe de France (@equipedefrance) June 10, 2016
Stancu’s converted penalty and a shaky conclusion, where France required all of Kante’s streetwise assurance to avert a humiliating reverse, seemed to have denied Payet his slice of glory.
However, he was performing at a level elite sportsmen touch fleetingly if they are lucky – apparently knowing what was to come while self-doubt increasingly gripped his colleagues.
A swipe of his left boot from 20 yards and crashing ripple of the top corner crowned a performance for the ages.
Regardless of what France achieve this month, those in attendance at the Stade de France will giddily brag that they were there for Payet against Romania. The match-winner left the field consumed by emotion and worthy of his place in every one of those stories yet to be told.