Theo Hernandez scored a spectacular late winner as France came from two goals down to defeat Belgium and reach the Uefa Nations League final.
After Belgium dominated the first half and took a two-goal lead into the break, Karim Benzema pulled one back before Kylian Mbappe fired an unstoppable penalty high into the top right corner to exorcise his spot-kick demons following his vital miss against Switzerland at Euro 2020.
There was late drama as Romelu Lukaku had a winner ruled out for offside before Paul Pogba hit the bar from a free kick, but Hernandez was able to find the net after finishing off a France counter attack.
Yannick Carrasco had opened the scoring for Belgium when he cut in from the left and fired a low shot past France captain Hugo Lloris at his near post, before Lukaku rolled Raphael Varane to run onto a Kevin De Bruyne pass and fire high into the net. France will face Spain in Sunday’s final after La Roja defeated European champions Italy 2-1 in another thrilling Nations League semi-final at the San Siro on Tuesday.
Here are five things we leaned from the Nations League semi-finals.
France continue to rely on individual moments
Didier Deschamps’ France had been thoroughly outplayed at times in the first half of their Nations League semi-final against Belgium but, like at the Euros, his side were able to get themselves out of danger with a spectacular spell of attacking brilliance.
One of the most puzzling aspects of France’s shock defeat to Switzerland this summer was that Les Blues had put together the best display of the tournament in the 20-minute spell in the second half in which they scored their three goals. Mbappe, Benzema, Griezmann and Paul Pogba threatened to produce an unbeatable combination and had showed just why they were pre-tournament favourites, only for Switzerland to hit back and knock them out on penalties.
It was a similar story here, but with a better ending for Deschamps. With so much quality and depth in their team, France continue to be brilliant to watch when their stars click. Here, it was Mbappe bursting into life that sparked France’s unlikely comeback. Mbappe had been lively in the first half too but his continued threat and his combinations with Benzema earned France a lifeline when the Real Madrid striker finished past Courtois.
It led to spectacular second halves from Griezmann and Pogba too, who found their confidence in the middle of the pitch to cut through Belgium at will. At half time, France were looking at a full-blown crisis and there are arguments that they shouldn’t have found themselves in that position to begin with. But with the quality in attack that they possess, Les Blues will always be confident of playing their way out of trouble.
Belgium’s tactical authority undone
Both Belgium and France lined up with near-mirroring systems in Turin, and in the first half it was clear to see which side came into this match with a well-drilled plan and which looked like they were making it up as they went along.
Belgium have an evident understanding of how to play their 3-4-2-1 system and their approach has been ingrained by Roberto Martinez over the past five years. It becomes apparent when, for example, they change their wing-back pair and there is no drop off in terms of cohesion. From the Euros, Yannick Carrasco and Timothy Castagne came into the team against France and were still able perform to a high level.
The way that their front three of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were able to interchange and link up so effectively in the first half was also down to Martinez’s system, and the contrast between that and France’s front three was evident in the opening stages.
Unfortunately for Martinez’s side, they lost control in the second half and struggled to keep possession in the face of the France press. Their failure to adjust was ultimately their downfall, while a lack of depth on their bench was also an issue.
Belgium’s wait for a first major honour of the golden generation continues to go on - and this was their best chance yet as they were just 45 minutes from a first final under Martinez.
Lukaku and De Bruyne the stars in Belgium’s attack
The last time Belgium faced France, the Red Devils lined up with the same attacking trio of De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Lukaku that started at the Juventus Stadium. Back in 2018, De Bruyne, Lukaku and Hazard were probably seen to be of equal standing. If anything, Hazard might have been considered to be the best - and that certainly can be seen through Ballon D’Or voting that year.
It’s a different story these days. Hazard is enjoying his best run of games for Real Madrid for a couple of seasons and produced a solid performance against France, but the levels of De Bruyne and Lukaku were on another level, and that has been the case for some time.
De Bruyne was outstanding against the world champions and was heavily involved in all aspects of Belgium’s play while Lukaku was instrumental to their performance with a typically dominant performance as their lone forward. Hazard was much more on the fringes. Although he was denied by a superb piece of defending from Jules Kounde in the first half, the majority of his work came outside of the box.
A front-three line up of De Bruyne, Lukaku, Hazard continues to carry an air of awe about it - but Hazard still has work to do to live up to it once again.
Gavi display adds further promise to Spain’s future
These are exciting times for Spain. Although Luis Enrique’s side still face a battle to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, La Roja came away from the daunting prospect of facing European champions Italy while missing several first-team players with a statement victory for the present that also adds further shine to their promising future.
If Euro 2020 was the coming out party for 18-year-old Pedri in front of a global audience, Wednesday’s win at the San Siro belonged to 17-year-old Gavi, who became the youngest player in the country’s history and glistened with his performance against the experienced and world-beating Italian trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella.
Gavi made the stage his own with a performance that displayed elite passing, touch and spatial awareness, and it almost seems unfair that the 2010 World Cup winners could produce another couple of midfield talents so soon after the reign of Xavi and Iniesta. The display of 18-year-old Yeremi Pino was just as exciting, as he lit up the right wing in an electrifying display.
Spain were arguably the better team in their semi-final defeat against Italy at Wembley in July, and Wednesday’s result was labelled as revenge for that Euro 2020 defeat. But with Gavi, Yeremi, Pedri, Ansu Fati, Pau Torres, Ferran Torres, Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal all aged 24 or younger, Enrique will only be thinking about the future for Spain.
Mancini breaks up the Chiellini-Bonucci wall
Apart from the injured Ciro Immobile, Italy were expected to line up against Spain with the same team that started July’s Euro 2020 final against England. There was one further change from Roberto Mancini, however, and a surprising one at that with the sight of Giorgio Chiellini starting among the substitutes.
The Chiellini-Leonardo Bonucci ‘wall’ was one of the biggest reasons behind the Azzurri’s triumph this summer, with the veterans defying age and expectation in leading their nation to the title. But with 22-year-old Alessandro Bastoni starting alongside Bonucci, Italy looked considerably more vulnerable.
Spain and their forward line were excellent at the San Siro but they were helped by elements of the Italy defending. Oyarzabal’s delivery for Torres’ opener was exquisite but Bastoni was too easily beaten by the cross, as Spain were able to make the early breakthrough.
Bonucci then went on to make two errors of judgement which resulted in a first-half red card, leaving Italy with a mountain to climb. Chiellini came on to fill the gap alongside Bastoni and defended well in the closing stages to keep Italy in the match, which was only further proof of what had been missing from the start.
Of course, Italy and Mancini have to prepare for when the 37-year-old Chiellini does eventually announce his international retirement, but it was no coincidence that their Azzurri’s famous defensive partnership was absent on the evening their unbeaten run came to an end.
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