Six Nations 2021: France empty-handed after Twickenham thriller but future looks bright for Les Bleus

By Sports Desk March 13, 2021

In France, they still speak joyously of Philippe Saint-Andre's wonder try at Twickenham, that majestic blue wave that swept from one end of the great stadium to the other, resulting in a score under the posts.

What a score that was, voted many years as Twickenham's 'try of the century', Blanco to Sella to Camberabero to Saint-Andre. The punch of the air, the high fives, the hugs. The wanton joie de vivre of it all.

But it came in a losing cause, on the final day of the 1991 Five Nations, in a championship decider. Some consolation, but a consolation nonetheless.

It was Geoff Cooke's team who lifted the trophy, Will Carling the beaming captain, the champagne spraying in England's dressing room.

France were a joy to watch, those great names still resonate, and they were so close to sashaying and side-stepping their way to a glorious Grand Slam.

So close. They finished second. The first losers.

Thirty years on from that March classic and there was nothing at Twickenham on Saturday that will be remembered quite so fondly as that vintage Saint-Andre moment, but there was so nearly an outcome that could have banished many bleak French memories from trips to London. Instead, England added to that long list.

Before Maro Itoje burrowed over in the 76th minute, this was poised to be a tale of a great French win, after a captivating clash. It would have been a third win in three games in this year's championship, talk would have turned to the Grand Slam.

Delightful tries from Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud, stemming from that great Gallic brand of running rugby, were of the sort Blanc, Sella and co would have been proud.

Suspicions of a Twickenham hex hanging over Les Bleus were about to be banished. England had won nine of their 10 previous home games against France in the Six Nations, including the last seven in a row, but their dominance was about to be halted by a French side with bulldog spirit to match their silky skills.

Fabien Galthie was on the brink of getting one over on Eddie Jones, who was facing the prospect of his Red Rose losing a third match in four.

It would have been an eighth win in their last nine Six Nations games for France.

And then along came Itoje. England were over.

Weren't they?

France clung to the hope Teddy Thomas had held Itoje up. Referee Andrew Brace felt Thomas may have done just that, but the TMO knew better.

After what felt like an age, the try was given and French hearts broke. They lost 23-20.

What an achievement it would have been for Galthie's side to cross La Manche and return to Marcoussis triumphant.

Last month's major COVID-19 outbreak in their camp was worrying from a health perspective but came in tandem with questions about conduct and protocol too, with Galthie eventually exonerated despite leaving the squad bubble to watch his son play a rugby game, and no blame apportioned.

This France side re-emerged and played with verve from the first minute - Dupont crossed after just 65 seconds following lovely work from Thomas - before Anthony Watson replied as England reined in their visitors.

France struck again in the 32nd minute, electric play from the backs in blue ending with Penaud dancing in on the right.

Owen Farrell and Matthieu Jalibert kept the score ticking along from the kicking tee, then with time running out Itoje had the determining say.

"We are playing lovely rugby," France back-rower Gregory Alldritt told ITV after the final whistle. "We are enjoying playing all together on the pitch.

"We will go back to work on Monday and have a big, big game next week and we need to prepare for this game."

France went down in this game, but they are not out. The Six Nations title could yet be heading to Paris, even if the Grand Slam will not.

Wales, now the only team left in contention for a clean sweep of wins, will aim to complete a perfect campaign in Paris next Saturday night.

Given how they took this game to England, and how close they came to a famous victory, expect Galthie's men to rise again for the challenge of the arriving Red Dragons.

This was England's day in the end, but you still got the feeling this might be a French side who in the near future won't have to settle for consolation prizes or being the first losers. That Wales game will be titanic, and revealing.

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  • Martinez rises from the chaos and leads Argentina to Copa America glory Martinez rises from the chaos and leads Argentina to Copa America glory

    This was not the potential Copa America farewell that Lionel Messi had dreamed of.

    With a little over an hour played in Miami, where he is tearing through MLS sides on a weekly basis, the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner was in tears as he trudged off with an apparent ankle injury.

    The next Copa America is not until 2028; Messi will be beyond 40 - surely, this was his last appearance in the competition in which he has now played more games than any other player?

    For Messi's individual pain, though, there was national glory. Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2024, with Portugal crashing out in the quarters, Argentina have gone the distance and, for a third successive major tournament, come out as the top dogs. They beat Colombia 1-0 on Sunday and claimed a record-setting 16th Copa America title.

    But if the 2021 Copa America and 2022 World Cup were all about their magical number 10, this time around, Lautaro Martinez provided the spark.

    Martinez has not been a regular starter under Lionel Scaloni. He endured a difficult World Cup in Qatar on a personal level, failing to score from 14 shots and an accumulated xG of 1.81.

    Yet in the United States, on the back of a fantastic season with Inter, Martinez has shown there is life after Messi for Argentina.

    Despite having already scored four goals at the tournament to lead the Golden Boot race ahead of kick-off against Colombia, which was delayed by over an hour due to crowd trouble outside the Hard Rock Stadium, Martinez was not called upon until seven minutes into extra time.

    It had, to that point, been an attritional encounter. Sure, plenty of shots (14 for Colombia, seven for Argentina) but Nicolas Gonzalez's disallowed goal and a strike off the post from Jhon Cordoba were the closest either team came. The second half alone, meanwhile, featured 13 fouls as the darker side of South American football reared its head.

    This was not a game for flair. James Rodriguez, the Player of the Tournament, still got on the ball for Colombia when he could - he created three chances and played a match-leading 20 passes into the final third. Angel Di Maria, in his final match before international retirement, provided some spark for Argentina with three key passes of his own.

    But it was Martinez who would make himself the (unlikely) hero. Five minutes after his introduction, he was put through by fellow substitute Giovani Lo Celso and, with his only shot of the night, coolly put Argentina ahead.

    Jubilation for Argentina, who continued the pattern that began in 1983, which consists of alternating two-time champions and new winners at the Copa America. 

    Deflation, though, for Colombia, whose long unbeaten streak came to an end after 27 games, and their 23-year wait for a second Copa America title will roll on to become 27 years, at least. Will they get a better chance, especially after seeing Messi go off?

    Argentina had less possession than their opponents for the first time since the semi-finals against Croatia in the last World Cup, with Colombia seeing 55.7% of the ball.

    But even if Messi, who scored only once across the tournament, was not at his fluid best, or even available at all, Argentina proved they can win without him. After he dragged them to glory in Qatar, Messi had to watch on - with his ankle swelling - from the sidelines as Martinez got Argentina over the line.

    This victory is one that has been built on a spectacularly solid defence, too. Argentina conceded only once in six games, in the quarter-final against Ecuador, which they won on penalties. Among the teams that played at least five matches in any edition of the Copa America, only four conceded fewer than two goals: Argentina in 2024 (one), Colombia in 2001 (0), Brazil in 1989 (one) and 2019 (one).

    And what of Messi, then? 

    At 37 years and 20 days old, he became the oldest player to start a Copa America final in the 21st century. He is also the first player to play in five finals (2007, 2015, 2016, 2021 and 2024), surpassing Javier Mascherano (2004, 2007, 2015 and 2016).

    He had not been substituted in a Copa America match since July 2007, also in a meeting with Colombia, but needs must.

    If this was, as expected, his farewell appearance in the competition, he goes out a two-time champion and with 14 goals to his name, three short of the tournament's record scorers.

    Martinez, meanwhile, has completed his redemption arc. His tally of five goals not only wins him the Golden Boot, but also matches the best effort by an Argentine at the Copa America since the turn of the century (along with Messi in 2016 and Juan Roman Riquelme in 2007).

    His goals came from just 221 minutes of action, and he started just two of Argentina's six matches.

    Colombia will lick their wounds, but so too must CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. 

    Passions run high in South American football, and the Americas in general, but the United States will be hosting a World Cup in two years' time. The chaos outside the stadium gates, which resulted in hundreds if not thousands of fans entering without tickets, and the match being delayed, does not reflect well at all.

    Like Martinez in an international shirt, those governing bodies must up their games. 

  • Euro 2024 final proves a game too far for England as familiar failing costs Southgate Euro 2024 final proves a game too far for England as familiar failing costs Southgate

    For all the talk of an England victory being written in the stars at Euro 2024, the Three Lions' oldest failing returned to haunt them in Sunday's final.

    If you cannot control matches at the elite level, you lose control of your destiny.

    That was exactly what happened at the Olympiastadion as Spain – the tournament's outstanding side – won a record-breaking fourth European crown, and deservedly so.

    It briefly looked like England might cap the most remarkable of knockout runs with another rescue act when Cole Palmer came off the bench to cancel out Nico Williams' opener.

    But at 1-1, England ceded control and territory, and as was the case against Croatia at the 2018 World Cup and Italy in the Euro 2020 final, it cost them.

    Mikel Oyarzabal matched Palmer's feat by scoring as a substitute with four minutes to play, ensuring the Three Lions' wait for silverware will stretch to at least 60 years.

    It was a familiar sinking feeling for Gareth Southgate, and few could really argue his team deserved anything more. 

    No Rodri, no problem for Spain

    Asked how England would go about the challenge of facing Spain this week, Southgate joked: "We'll have to get the ball off them first."

    While Spain only generated chances worth 0.28 expected goals (xG) in a cagey first half, Luis de la Fuente's side had 69.2% possession and completed 265 passes to England's 100.

    While some excellent last-ditch defending from John Stones and Luke Shaw kept Spain at bay, Declan Rice and Kobbie Mainoo struggled to establish a foothold as Fabian Ruiz, Rodri and the excellent Dani Olmo set the tone in the middle of the park.

    And even when Rodri was forced off through injury at the halfway point, Martin Zubimendi being introduced in a switch that would have given England hope, little changed, Spain enjoying 60.7% of the ball in the second period.

    Indeed, Rice completed just 77.5% of his passes (31/40), Mainoo 72.2% (13/18) and Jude Bellingham 67.7% (21/31) throughout the 90 minutes, with Luke Shaw (93.3%) and Bukayo Saka (91.3%) the only England starters to record a pass completion rate of over 90%. Five of Spain's 10 outfield starters did so.

    England's 16 touches in Spain's area, compared to 30 for La Roja, told the story of a team penned back by a foe more accomplished and confident in possession.

    Spain racked up 1.77 xG to England's 0.55 by full-time, and had the Three Lions somehow found a way to edge the game, Jordan Pickford would surely have been Man of the Match, denying Lamine Yamal with two wonderful saves.

    England have relied on moments of individual brilliant to get them through this tournament, from Bellingham's overhead kick against Slovakia to Ollie Watkins' winner versus the Netherlands.

    But Sunday's final was just a bridge too far as they lost to the most organised side at the competition.

    Roja wingers run the show

    Much of the pre-match talk centred upon how England could stop Spanish wingers Williams and Yamal. Spoiler alert: they didn't stop them.

    William's opener was the result of some excellent work from Yamal, the 17-year-old skipping between Shaw and Rice to carve open the Three Lions' backline and register his fourth assist of the tournament. 

    No player on record – since Euro 1980 – has registered more in a single edition of the tournament, while Yamal has 10 goal involvements for Spain since his senior debut in September 2023 (three goals, seven assists) – more than any other player.

    At the age of 22 years and two days, meanwhile, Williams is the second-youngest player to score in a European Championship final, after Italy's Pietro Anastasi in 1968 (20 years, 64 days).

    Williams and Yamal created three chances apiece, a tally not matched by any other player on the field, with the latter's 19 chances created the highest figure at the tournament overall.

    What next for Southgate?

    For England, questions will now inevitably turn to Southgate's future.

    Sunday's final will have done nothing to win over those who believe the Three Lions would be better served by approaching the 2026 World Cup under a more progressive coach.

    Southgate made some strides at this tournament, not least with his use of substitutions, and Palmer's dramatic intervention off the bench was further evidence of his evolution in that department.

    The Chelsea man found the bottom-left corner with a measured finish just 142 seconds after entering the fray, England's fastest-ever goal by a substitute at the Euros.

    The Three Lions spent a few minutes on the front foot after their leveller, but they soon fell back into old habits as Spain re-established control.

    Southgate is the first boss to ever lose two European Championship finals, while England are the first team to fall short in two straight showpiece matches. 

    And this time around, whereas perhaps it was not the case in tournaments gone by, England had the personnel. They had the quality in depth. But Southgate struggled to get an attack featuring LaLiga's best player, the Premier League's best player and the Bundesliga's best player from last season to click.

    The Harry Kane conundrum is particularly frustrating. Indeed, Kane had just one touch in the opposition box across the Euro 2020 and Euro 2024 finals, one fewer than Jack Grealish had; Grealish played 21 minutes in the 2020 final and didn't make the squad this time around.

    Southgate may have given England's fans some unforgettable moments, but his legacy will be that of a manager just unable to get over the line on the biggest stage. 

  • Spain 2-1 England: Oyarzabal's late heroics power La Roja to Euro 2024 glory Spain 2-1 England: Oyarzabal's late heroics power La Roja to Euro 2024 glory

    Mikel Oyarzabal proved the late hero as his winner saw Spain down England 2-1 on Sunday.

    Spain became the first team in history to win the European Championship on four separate occasions as Oyarzabal's smart finish four minutes from time sealed a historic victory in Berlin.

    Substitute Cole Palmer had earlier cancelled out Nico Williams' second-half opener, only for Real Sociedad's Oyarzabal to break English hearts in the Three Lions' second consecutive Euros final.

    Gareth Southgate's side almost levelled in the final minute, but Unai Simon and Dani Olmo were the defensive heroes for Spain as England became the first team to lose back-to-back Euros finals.

    A tentative first half was devoid of gilt-edged opportunities as Spain dominated possession without reward against England's well-drilled defence.

    Phil Foden spurned the best chance before the break, but he volleyed tamely straight at Simon.

    The injured Rodri was removed at half-time for Martin Zubimendi in a huge Spanish blow, yet that mattered for little as La Roja cut through England with ease immediately after the interval.

    Yamal ghosted inside from the right flank before sliding across towards the left of the area for an unchallenged Williams to caress a left-footed strike into the bottom-right corner.

    Williams found space once more just minutes later, arrowing a left-footed drive wide from a similar angle to the opener.

    Stones was required to clear off the line from Alvaro Morata, while Williams hammered off target from range and Jordan Pickford superbly denied Yamal.

    Spain's failure to capitalise was punished eight minutes later. A sweeping Three Lions break saw Bukayo Saka roll inside for Jude Bellingham before his offload teed up Palmer, whose guided left-footed finish from outside the box found the bottom-left corner just three minutes after his introduction.

    Pickford was once again equal to Yamal eight minutes from time, parrying away another strong two-handed save after Olmo and Williams combined to set up their teenage team-mate.

    Yet Pickford had no answer when Marc Cucurella whipped low across for Oyarzabal, who prodded into the bottom-left corner for the decisive goal.

    There was time for one more twist, but Simon and Olmo stood firm to thwart Rice and Stones respectively as Spain clung on for glory.

    Wing wizards pave way for La Roja success

    Barcelona winger Yamal, aged just 17 years and one day, surpassed Brazil's Pele – at the 1958 World Cup – as the youngest-ever player to feature in a major tournament final.

    Yet another piece of history was not enough for Yamal, who has been involved in more goals for Spain in all competitions than any other player since his debut in September 2023 (10 – three goals, seven assists).

    His deft assist for Williams added another memorable moment for his embryonic career, and Spain supporters may be relishing the partnership of their two star wingers in future years.

    But it was La Real's Oyarzabal who proved the hero, sneaking in past Pickford to inflict further heartbreak on Southgate's England as two substitutes scored in the final of the Euros or World Cup for the first time.

    Familiar fate for Three Lions

    England suffered heartbreak in the delayed Euro 2020 final after penalty shoot-out failure against Italy, and though they battled all the way, failed to make amends in their first international showpiece away from home soil.

    The Three Lions did themselves no favours immediately after the interval, conceding the fastest goal in the second half of a Euros final, continuing a concerning trend overall.

    England have now conceded the first goal in four consecutive matches for the first time since May/June 1985, and those defensive fragilities were exposed once more when Oyarzabal found a pocket of space for the winner.

    Oyarzabal's magic moment may forever haunt Southgate, who could soon depart as England manager as the first head coach in European Championship history to lose two finals.

    England are also the first side to lose two consecutive Euros finals, and a new era could await after the Three Lions went so close without reward once again.

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