By Samindra Kunti in Milan
October 10 – Forget Euro 2020 and that painful second-round exit at the hands of Switzerland, France have mastered the art of the comeback. They came from behind the second time in four days to defeat Spain 2-1 with a contentious goal from Kylian Mbappé in the Nations League final and win the tournament’s second edition.
In a cagey first hour, neither France nor Spain reproduced the intensity, drama and high quality of their semi-finals, but Mikel Oyarzabal’s goal ignited the final.
In a last half-hour of frantic box-to-box action, the world champions proved to be the comeback kings of this Nations League after their dramatic rearguard in the last four against Belgian. This time, Spain were the victim of France’s individual brilliance and collective resilience.
In the first half, the Spanish monopolised possession, leaving the French little to no opportunity to get a foothold in the game. The world champions were left chasing the ball and the game but exhibited almost no ambition. That lack of zip, and cohesion, has been a recurring problem and theme for Les Bleus, who have often been accused of playing reactive football under Didier Deschamps.
The French coach said that France would press together and choose their moments in the match. He wanted his players to conserve their energy to strike at the right moments, but Paul Pogba and co. interpreted those words broadly, acting with apathy in the first half, content to sit back and play safe passes in their own half. The front three went missing and on the wings, both Benjamin Pavard and Theo Hernandez offered too little. France didn’t register a single shot on target before the break.
At the other end, Spain struggled to break down the French defence, but their every touch was embedded in the game plan of a coach who values ball possession, skill, expression and ideas. It was Gavi, Spain’s youngest ever international, who completed the most passes (42) and covered the most distance (5.98km) in the first 45 minutes.
When Hernandez struck the underside of the bar in the 64th minute, the final burst into life. Within seconds, Oyarzabal scored with a low shot across the face of the goal, but France showed their powers of recovery. Two minutes later, Karim Benzema, mostly invisible up to this point, bent a gorgeous finish into the top far corner to equalise.
His attacking partner Kylian Mbappe had also been peripheral but then did what elite players do: win the match with an 80th-minute goal from a Hernandez assist. However, the 22-year old looked offside, but the VAR didn’t intervene.
The final was now wonderfully frantic and Spain almost levelled when Oyarzabal twice smashed the ball goal-wards to be denied by Hugo Lloris. It was a grandstand finish to a week of fine Final Four action that underscored the value of the Nations League, a tournament UEFA introduced to galvanise the international game and replace friendly matches.
In 2019, then European champions Portugal won the maiden edition and in the past few days Belgium, Italy, Spain and eventual winners France delivered a showcase for European football with high-octane and high-quality matches. However, as the Nations League grows as a competition, with a total of €10.5 million in prize money as well for the winners, the tournament’s future could well be in doubt because of FIFA’s biennial World Cup plans.
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