Theo Hernandez goal completes thrilling turnaround as France see off Belgium

Two goals in four minutes had given Belgium a 2-0 advantage at half-time

 

Belgium 2 France 3

Belgium have been top of Fifa’s world rankings for the past three years and they enjoyed a dominant position at half-time in a thrilling, topsy-turvy Nations League semi-final in Turin on Thursday night.

But again honours will elude them, their only consolation this time being that they provoked a genuinely brilliant response from France. The world champions looked lost at half-time when they were 2-0 down. But Theo Hernandez’s superb late winning goal crowned a momentous fightback and set up a mouthwatering duel in Sunday’s final with Spain.

Didier Deschamps had pitched the culmination of the Nations League as “a magical aside” between the European Championships and the qualifiers for the next World Cup but this contest was also an intriguing sequel to the neighbours’ bitter encounter at the last World Cup, when France’s 1-0 victory in the semi-final left Belgium with an acute sense of grievance.

Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard were among the players who complained then about France’s negative approach, grumbling that Les Bleus’ triumph was bad for football. That bellyaching probably owed much to the Belgians’ disappointment with their own blunt performance and the suspicion that, with key players ageing, they had let slip their best chance to win a major honour with their country. Seven Belgium players who started the 2018 semi-final started again here. They had a score to settle and an opportunity to prove, to themselves as much as anyone, that there may still be better days ahead.

France sought similar assurances. They, too, fielded seven survivors from these countries’ last duel but the world champions are groping for a new identity. Their defence has been rickety for a while and a front three that looks irresistible in theory – Kylian Mbappé, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann – has yet to work well in reality. Deschamps hoped that a 3-4-3 formation would provide the balance his team have lacked.

France’s defensive weakness was quickly exposed. In the third minute Romelu Lukaku hurtled down the right and sent in a cross that proved much more troublesome to Jules Koundé than it should have. After a bungled clearance the centre back was grateful to see Hugo Lloris make an excellent save to deny Kevin De Bruyne.

Then France showed their menace at the other end. Jason Denayer had to boot the ball away from his line after Mbappé ghosted past Courtois and tried to squeeze the ball into the net from a tight angle. Two minutes later Mbappé curled a cross from the left to Benjamin Pavard, whose header from 10 yards forced a save from Courtois.

Apparently France meant business. They pushed Belgium back in a pulsating first 15 minutes. But Belgium got to grips with them and began to push back. And France turned strangely sheepish, practically inviting pressure as they retreated. Belgium sent them reeling with two goals in four minutes.

Yannick Carrasco ventured forward from wing back in the 37th minute to invite a pass from De Bruyne just to the left of the French box. He roved into the area and feigned to centre before using Pavard as a shield as he fired a low shot in at the near post past a wrongfooted Lloris.

The goalkeeper looked bewildered again four minutes later when Lukaku beat both him and Lucas Hernandez. After peeling off the defender at the right-hand side of the box to receive a pass from De Bruyne, the striker rammed a shot past Lloris at the near post and into roof of the net.

France found their mojo in the second half, led by Paul Pogba and Mbappé. Griezmann diverted the ball wide from two yards in the 57th minute after brilliant service by Mbappé. The PSG forward sparkled again just after the hour, befuddling a defender outside the area before pinging the ball through to Benzema near the penalty spot. Despite the efforts of the three defenders around him, Benzema swivelled and beat Courtois with a low shot.

Suddenly France were sharper everywhere – including in Belgium’s box in the 67th minute, when Griezmann beat Youri Tielemans to the ball and got clipped by the Leicester player. Mbappé stepped up to dispatch a perfect penalty, atoning for his miss against Switzerland in the Euros.

De Bruyne nearly rifled Belgium back into the lead but Lloris tipped his shot over the bar. Pogba and Mbappé went close to putting France in front before Lukaku had a goal disallowed for a hairline offside. With extra-time looming, Theo Hernandez detonated an explosive finale, lashing a shot from the left-hand corner of the box beyond Courtois. – Guardian

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