World champions France recovered from another deficit, for the second time in four days, to be crowned the 2021 UEFA Nations League champions with a 2-1 win over Euro 2020 semi-finalists Spain. Just like their comeback win over Belgium, goals from Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe saw them storm ahead in a frenetic second-half packed with chances for both sides.
France eventually edge past Spain in slow-burner
This week’s success may serve to merely mask their Euro 2020 disappointment, such was the surprise at which they capitulated against Switzerland in the last-16 exactly 105 days ago.
But, upon reflection, Didier Deschamps’ men have plenty to be pleased about. The 3-5-2 formation and any variation similar has its drawbacks, but allows him to start the Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema trident that wouldn’t mesh well elsewhere.
While the spine of their Euro 2020 side remained largely the same, Barcelona’s teenage midfield wonderkid Gavi and PSG winger Pablo Sarabia (on-loan at Sporting) were among the notable inclusions in Luis Enrique’s Spain starting eleven here. Right on cue, both had an early impact.
Gavi and Cesar Azpilicueta rather set the tone for what proved to be a stop-star affair at times with tactical fouls, forcefully committing to late challenges that piqued Paul Pogba’s interest.
He made a point of counting them and letting referee Anthony Taylor know about it, almost as a totting up procedure that needed to be actioned with bookings to ward off more of the same.
Laporte’s cynical challenge on substitute Leo Dubois resulted in Spain’s first booking of the night, though it really shouldn’t have taken 85 minutes to get there (11 fouls committed)…
Spain, centred around an evolved tiki-taka style, pass out of pressure situations with ease but from the early exchanges it felt like both sides would have opportunities to counter in transition.
Pogba’s line-breaking pass teed up Benzema, though a moment’s hesitancy by the Real Madrid striker saw them recover and save Rodri’s blushes after losing possession cheaply in midfield.
France’s purposeful start continued, as Aymeric Laporte – capped up to under-21 level with Les Bleus – made a vital sliding interception at his near post, denying Mbappe a chance at latching onto Benjamin Pavard’s pass as they created a well-worked passing sequence into the area.
Lacking the killer pass dents both sides in first 45
Sarabia, who lasted an hour on this occasion, saw Spain’s first sight of goal after good dribbling and movement in the build-up by Tuesday’s matchwinner Ferran Torres. However, he lacked power and conviction on his eventual effort as Lloris gladly claimed the danger at his near post.
The captain would face much sterner shots on his goal than that deep into the second-half, though that fleeting opportunity rather typified Spain’s problems as they lacked a killer final ball.
Gavi and Torres looked especially threatening down Spain’s right-hand side, though they were collectively patient with their passing and didn’t truly probe France the same way they did Italy.
Sure, they didn’t have a numerical advantage and more freedom to roam into, but took up dangerous positions without reward. Pogba’s gesticulation towards Taylor, a familiar face given his Premier League pedigree, resumed after Rodri’s robust challenge on Aurelien Tchouameni.
PSG centre-back Presnel Kimpembe, recalled after Lucas Hernandez’s torrid time in the semis, made three important defensive interventions in five minutes – twice recovering well to dispossess Torres as he lurked in the area, before clearing Sarabia’s cross from a resulting corner.
It was the sort of resolute defending we didn’t see in midweek, albeit with a hint of extravagance attached given his penchant for sliding across the turf when he doesn’t always need to.
Bayern’s Dayot Upamecano replaced him just before half-time, for his fourth international cap – but it was the third of France’s backline who showed why Chelsea have intensely courted him.
Sevilla’s Jules Kounde displayed great awareness and a rapid turn of pace under pressure to help get his teammates out of a precarious situation in stoppage-time, as an errant Pavard pass towards Pogba gave Real Sociedad’s Mikel Oyarzabal licence to charge forward into open space.
pogba’s booking triggers the second-half bursting into life
There were no changes by either manager as the second-half got underway, though it felt somewhat typical that Pogba – who was frequently complaining about Spain’s rough nature – got the game’s first booking after an overzealous tackle on Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets.
You didn’t know it at the time, but with the Manchester United man feeling hard done by and increasingly frustrated, that proved the catalyst for France’s second-half flurry.
Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso made an inch-perfect sliding interception as Mbappe lurked alongside him, having played a one-two with Pavard in transition. Moments beforehand, Spain had caught Kounde out and almost fashioned a golden opportunity themselves.
Sarabia charged at him, won the ball and galloped forward after a one-two with Oyarzabal as players followed in support. He fizzed a low ball across the area but it was too powerful so narrowly evaded an onrushing Torres at the far post – his last meaningful action of the evening.
On came Villarreal’s teenage winger Yeremi Pino, who created problems aplenty for the Azzurri on Tuesday and was similarly energetic here without seeing as much of the ball.
The game had suddenly sparked into life, with Unai Simon showing razor-sharp reactions to charge outside his area and intercept Griezmann’s inviting ball as Mbappe gave chase.
Two quick-fire finishes, of contrasting nature
A minute later, Tchouameni’s beautiful pirouette skill to leave Rodri in his rearview mirror set the starting sequence in motion which led to the game’s opening goal. Pogba advanced, jinking past Busquets and shrugging off Gavi’s cynical challenge to thread Mbappe through to his left.
He passed to Benzema, who saw an overlapping Theo Hernandez just outside the six-yard area: having scored from further out on Wednesday, you would’ve backed him to bury this chance.
Instead, it cannoned back off the crossbar and 35 seconds later, Spain stunned them. Busquets’ lofted pass set Oyarzabal through on-goal as Upamecano’s touch fumbled the ball back to him.
He didn’t hesitate, firing into the far corner with aplomb, but it wasn’t 1-0 for long. Benzema responded with an even more emphatic strike less than two minutes later.
Pogba and Mbappe, predictably, were involved in the build-up but Benzema had plenty to do: getting a yard on Azpilicueta before curling a high effort past Simon’s fingertips to equalise.
Mbappe could and probably should’ve given them the lead six minutes later, but miskicked a golden opportunity into Simon’s gloves as Spain were dispossessed in their own half.
Mbappe makes up for quiet showing, spain respond
Both sides made substitutions before Mbappe atoned for his earlier miss. Hernandez threaded through an inviting ball and after it took a touch off Eric Garcia, the 22-year-old was critically more patient with this chance, lining up his shot with a stepover before firing low past Simon.
Spain players looked longingly at the assistant referee, though VAR didn’t overturn the original decision as Garcia’s touch meant Mbappe wasn’t offside.
It just reiterated how this is a game of moments. Mbappe was quiet in the first-half, to Spain’s credit, and tried to compensate by being rash and rushing his decision-making in the second 45.
But that finish proved their winner, thanks to two important Lloris saves late on to thwart Oyarzabal and Pino as La Roja piled on the pressure in the final few minutes.
Pogba flew in to make a last-ditch interception and deny West Ham playmaker Pablo Fornals, while Kimpembe produced more defiant defending to stop Pino in his tracks in the area.
The Pogba-Tchouameni midfield pairing provided protection for their centre-backs, even in sticky moments, and they were noticeably better than with Juventus’ Adrien Rabiot.
If the first 45 was underwhelming given the star-studded players on show, the second-half certainly made up for it in a nailbiting affair with twists and turns befitting the showpiece event.
Picture source: Getty Images