French heroes face Spain with a chance to rule the roost

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Legend has it that in the Middle Ages, the kings of France encouraged the rooster to become the national icon of France due to its power as a symbol of Christianity: its song every morning highlighting the victory of light over the darkness.

And, say the history books, the image has been embedded in the collective Gallic psyche since the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. No wonder the rooster adorns the crest on the jersey of the French football team.

Fire burners, farmers, commoners and columnists would have been rascals then about the France team after a 2-0 comeback to beat Belgium 3-2 in the Nations League semi-finals on Thursday night.

Theo Hernandez scored his first senior goal in the 90th minute to tip the scales.

Curiously, the jubilant French media have dispensed with good old French words such as “retour” or “monte” and deployed the Spanish word “remountada” for the feat at the Allianz stadium in Turin.

And why not? Remontada has been part of the French sports lexicon since 2017, when Barcelona beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 to reverse a 4-0 first-leg deficit and advance to the final eight in the Champions League.

Opponent

Rightly so, Spain will be France’s opponent on Sunday in the 2021 Nations League final at the San Siro in Milan.

After 45 minutes Thursday night, a trot against the Spaniards seemed unlikely.

Belgium was in a different hemisphere: smoother and more cultivated in possession. Their 3-4-3 setup was a stark contrast to the flaws caused by the French interpretation of the formation.

Silk master Kevin De Bruyne sent his ribbons just behind center forward Romelu Lukaku. Eden Hazard – to Lukaku’s left – also wove magic.

It was De Bruyne who scored goals for Yannick Carrasco and Lukaku in the devastating five minutes just before halftime.

Calm

Fully aware of the sharpening of knives, France coach Didier Deschamps refused to panic. He deployed the same players in the second half and Belgium started to fade in the face of more vigor from their opponents.

Antoine Griezmann should have reduced the deficit in the 58th minute, but he made a tap-in after Kylian Mbappé entered the penalty area on the lower right and squared the ball for him.

Four minutes later, Mbappé entered the area on the left and passed to Karim Benzema who, although unbalanced and with three defenders around him, managed to shoot the ball through the gaps and into the left side of the goal of Thibaut Courtois.

A completely different shade now and Yuri Tieleman’s thug hack off Griezmann’s heels into the penalty area in the 69th minute betrayed the grueling belief.

Mbappé, who missed the crucial fifth penalty kick in the last 16 shots on goal against Switzerland at the European Championships, stepped up and tapped his high kick to the left of Courtois.

Pressure

“I love playing games like this,” the forward told the French Football Federation website. “It’s a high pressure game that everyone watches and the kind of game everyone wants to play.”

The semi-final was Mbappé’s 50th senior game for his country. Six weeks before his 23rd birthday, he is expected to determine further clutch matches.

The victory over Spain will give him and his teammates a second international honor just over three years after France won their second world crown.

Triumph would also reposition France – which leads its World Cup qualifying group – as one of the teams to beat when competing next year in Qatar.

Youth

Spain, who knocked out Italy in the semi-finals at San Siro on Wednesday, will offer another set of problems in Sunday’s showdown.

They were dripping with Coltish effervescence as they jostled and jostled the Italians who brought down a man at the end of the first half with the dismissal of Leonardo Bonucci for two yellow cards.

The European champions threatened their own comeback when Lorenzo Pellegrini scored in the 83rd minute to reduce the lead. But Spain held on for a 2-1 win to end a world record 37 games unbeaten.

Spain coach Luis Enrique praised the vitality of his team and in particular Barcelona midfielder Gavi, who at 17 years and 62 days old has become the youngest player to represent his country.

Future

“I’ve known him for a while because he was at the Barcelona academy,” said Enrique, a former Barcelona coach. “We talked a lot about him. I have no doubts about its performance. He is the present and the future of the Spain team.

Deschamps did not come out of the semi-final victory with such praise; a few more wrinkles on his forehead.

Mbappé was his little prodigy in Russia where the wonder man N’Golo Kanté also shone.

The Kanté twins – as the Chelsea midfielder is known – were ill on Thursday night and their absence was noted. French midfielders there eventually raised their own levels to compensate.

After the debacle at the European Championships – where France were clearly favorites – and heavy performances in the World Cup qualifiers, the Nations League has acquired much more importance for Deschamps and his gang.

A title would help ease the pressure on him and his players; a little light could come out of the semi-darkness.

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