TURIN, Italy (Reuters) – There were plenty of question marks over Didier Deschamps and his France side after their disappointing Euro 2020 campaign but their performance in a 3-2 comeback win over Belgium in the Nations League semi-finals on Thursday, answered many of them.
This was not the France that went out of the Euros in the last 16 with a penalty shootout defeat by Switzerland, instead there was a verve and confidence about the team that grew throughout the match, despite them falling two goals down in the first half.
France now take on Spain in Sunday’s final at the San Siro and while Luis Enrique’s young side were hugely impressive in their 2-1 victory over Italy on Wednesday, Deschamps knows his team will offer a sterner test of the Spanish defence than the Azzurri mustered.
The central issue against the Belgians was whether the front three of Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann could truly click together and the evidence at the Juventus Stadium was that they could.
Mbappe and Benzema, who both got on the scoresheet, were looking for each other immediately, searching out ways to open up the Belgian defence while not losing their own individual killer instincts.
Griezmann floated in spaces behind the front two and on occasions drifted out wide and while he may need more time to adjust to that way of playing, the signs were clear that it is an approach worth persevering with.
The three also pressed the Belgian defence hard — a key approach when there were only two ‘classic’ midfielders behind them.
But even more encouraging for the France coach was the way in which his 3-4-3 formation worked, in particular the contributions from his two wing backs.
Benjamin Pavard on the right and Theo Hernandez on the left, showed the energy, speed and willingness to attack that is vital to the modern wide player.
There was no stronger illustration of how well that aspect of the formation worked than the 90th-minute winner with Pavard’s low cross finding its way across the box to Theo Hernandez who drilled home.
The absence of N’Golo Kante from central midfield meant Paul Pogba and Adrian Rabiot had a lot of responsibility in the centre of the park but with Belgium moving the ball quickly to their forwards and to the wings they didn’t face sustained examination.
That will be different on Sunday against a Spain side which has a much stronger tendency to rotate the ball in central areas with their possession game and where Pogba and Rabiot will have to be much more conscious of the spaces around them.
“It’s a new system, we need time,” said Deschamps, who has tried the formation in the past, most noticeably in the painful loss to the Swiss.
But there was another element, essential for any successful team, that the French showed as they turned the game around after going in 2-0 down at the break.
“Winning the match in that way shows the strength of character of the squad. The players never give in,” said Deschamps, while Pogba said that if there was a video of the discussions in the dressing room at halftime it would be revealing.
Now Deschamps has a chance to add a Nations League title to the World Cup his side won in 2018 and if the two semi-finals are any guide — Sunday’s final should be essential viewing.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, Editing by Ed Osmond)