Karim Benzema deserves to become the first French winner of the Ballon d'Or since Zinedine Zidane – and that verdict comes from Zidane himself.

Real Madrid striker Benzema, who has taken over the captaincy since Sergio Ramos joined Paris Saint-Germain, is playing the best football of his career as he approaches his 34th birthday in December.

Zidane has seen that as close quarters, having had two spells as Madrid head coach during Benzema's time at the club.

Although Zidane left Los Blancos at the end of last season, he is firmly in the Benzema camp when it comes to selecting a Ballon d'Or front-runner.

Speaking to TF1's Telefoot, Zidane said: "We're talking about a player who deserves to win this Ballon d'Or.

"He's an incredible player, I had the great honour of coaching him. He knows how to do everything on the pitch. I hope he can be rewarded with this Ballon d'Or. It's the right moment because he's at the top of his game."

 

France international Benzema has been Madrid's attacking spearhead since Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Juventus in 2018 and has risen to that challenge.

He has topped the 20-goal mark in LaLiga in the last three seasons and has nine strikes in eight games so far this term in the Spanish top flight.

Last season, Benzema's 23 league goals came at an average of one every 126.13 minutes. They also came from an expected goals total of 18.81, indicating he is excelling in taking the chances that come his way.

His LaLiga shot conversion rate so far in 2021-22 is 26.47 per cent, higher than he has achieved across any full league campaign since arriving in 2009 from Lyon.

With three LaLiga titles and four Champions League wins in 12 years, Benzema has accrued plenty of silverware while with Los Blancos, much of it during Zidane's time in charge. He also helped France win the Nations League last weekend, scoring a stunning goal against Spain in the final.

Now, individual acclaim may be coming his way, although Benzema faces stiff competition, with six-time winner Lionel Messi rated a favourite for the Ballon d'Or with British bookmakers, having helped Argentina win the Copa America.

Benzema recently said it had been a long-held "dream of mine" to win the coveted award.

Robert Lewandowski's record-breaking 41-goal Bundesliga season last term also puts him firmly into contention, while Jorginho has a strong claim after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

The Ballon d'Or winner will be announced on November 29 at a ceremony in Paris.

Luis Enrique lauded Spain "pillar" Sergio Busquets after his exploits in the country's trophy-less Nations League Finals campaign.

Spain fell short in Sunday's Nations League final, beaten 2-1 by reigning world champions France at San Siro in Milan.

Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe cancelled out Mikel Oyarzabal's 64th-minute opener and while Spain were left emptyhanded, veteran captain Busquets produced another impressive display in the middle of the nation's rebuilding project.

Busquets provided his 10th assist for Spain and first since November 2019 having teed up Oyarzabal, while the 33-year-old captain led the team in tackles (four) and total duels (17) after finishing with a 92.2 per cent passing accuracy – only bettered by Eric Garcia for La Roja.

"Busquets has been named the best player of the tournament. That says a lot about his level. He's vital for us. He's the captain, but not only that," Luis Enrique said during his post-match news conference.

"He's also somebody who gives some values off the pitch and on the pitch. He gives you calmness, quietness. He's our pillar on which our defensive and attacking game are based.

"How much we've won, I don't know, but I know we were able to win against the European champions and play almost evenly with the world champions, so for the players and the team, that is all good.

"And of course, every time it will be more difficult for me to make the next selection, and that is good for me and good for us. The important thing is the team maintains its personality and will to win."

Spain ended the decider with 63.9 per cent possession and 624 passes, compared to France's 354 total passes.

Luis Enrique's Spain were left to rue a missed opportunity, having lost to eventual champions Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 semi-finals.

"Nothing was missing. It was a shame that once we scored that opening goal, that France went up the other end. It was a shame to concede when we just scored, because that's when France were at their weakest. That's the only regret we can have," the former Barcelona boss added.

"What are we missing? We're not missing anything at all. We still need to keep that same confidence, and we need to try press ahead with what we've been doing." 

"As usual, no matter who we're playing against, Spain will always play its game," Luis Enrique said. "Sometimes we play a bit better than other times, but that's normal. But I think all fans would agree that Spain always plays the same way. No matter where, no matter against whom. So I am satisfied with what I have seen this tournament."

France head coach Didier Deschamps hailed "crucial" Karim Benzema after the star forward guided Les Bleus to Nations League glory.

Benzema scored a stunning equaliser as world champions France came from behind to beat Spain 2-1 in Sunday's final in Milan.

After Mikel Oyarzabal broke the deadlock, Benzema struck moments later in sublime fashion to restore parity before Kylian Mbappe settled the contest 10 minutes from the end.

Benzema ended the Nations League Finals as the joint leading scorer alongside Mbappe and Spain's Ferran Torres to cap a particularly pleasing campaign for the Real Madrid talisman, who had spent more than five years in international exile before returning ahead of Euro 2020.

"Karim is a crucial player, and he has proven over the course of these two matches that he has very obvious talent," Deschamps told reporters.

"It's there for all to see, he is really kicked on from what he has been showing at club level with Real Madrid, he's got that desperate will to win. He's here exactly to do that, and he's communicated a great deal with his teammates, I am very happy for everyone, but especially for him.

"He needed that, he's not going to play another four or five international competitions, at least I don't think so. It's not the most important trophy, but he did everything, and he was very significant for us when it came to coming here and winning the Nations League. 

"It's important of course to have come from behind and equalised. I am personally very happy for Karim, that's why he is here. He scores a bucket-load of goals with his club and he does likewise for France, and besides the goals that he scores... he has that wonderful will to win, and you can see that come out.

"I am delighted as for the future of course, it is very important, besides the talent that he or other players might possess, there also this mental strength he's got this competitive edge which is absolutely crucial at the highest level."

Deschamps' France are now unbeaten in 25 competitive matches, only doing better once in their history between 1994 and 1999, thanks to exploits of Benzema and Mbappe at San Siro.

Mbappe finished the Nations League Finals with four goal involvements – more than any other player.

Deschamps, whose France were shocked by Switzerland in the last 16 at Euro 2020, added: "There are no regrets in football, that is part of the past, some people might agree or disagree, but there was a 10-minute window when we had a bit of a black-out [against Switzerland].

"And the scenario went against us here, we went behind by two goals [in the semi-final against Belgium], that can happen, but it was all about what we had done well before. But it was of course a bit of a sudden stop, and we did of course have ambitions to go further. But it's not a case that you have to throw everything out of the window, throw the baby out with the bathwater, quite the opposite.

"Even if it is not the same personnel. We have some young players who have very few caps, like Theo Hernandez, or Aurelien Tchouameni this evening. We threw them in there. And the team's level didn't suffer, there will be a lot of effervescence in this side, there will be competition for places and for those that are in form as you know the best possible remedy is to win trophies and there was something up for grabs tonight and I am very happy for the entire squad that was here during the two games that we won here." 

Karim Benzema hailed France's comeback ability as a sign of a "great team" after Les Bleus fought back to defeat Spain 2-1 and claim the 2021 Nations League.

The Real Madrid forward equalised after Mikel Oyarzabal opened the scoring, the seventh time in 2021 France have fallen behind first – three more times than any other calendar year.

Kylian Mbappe then scored the winner after 80 minutes, his fourth goal involvement at the Finals – more than any other player – to secure Les Bleus' second trophy in three attempts after winning the 2018 World Cup and faltering at Euro 2020.

Didier Deschamps' side are now unbeaten in 25 competitive matches, only doing better once in their history between 1994 and 1999, and Benzema pinpointed the team's comeback ability as a hallmark of how good they are.

"It's a dream evening on a collective and personal level," Benzema told M6 post-match.

"I really wanted to win a trophy with the France team, today it's done. It was a difficult match against a very good team. We have shown the strength of character.

"This team is very strong, it never gives up and we have proven it again today. It is the sign of great teams: [they] do not panic and wait for the right moment.

"We will first take advantage of this trophy and go for the World Cup."

Paul Pogba, who dominated the final with team-high figures in both touches (77) and passes (42), echoed Benzema's sentiments while bemoaning France's tendency to start slowly in games.

"It's true that we started badly," Pogba said to M6 after the game. "[It was] another first period where we were dominated by Spain [and] we had to react after a goal.

"We have to do better, we know that. But the result is victory at the end. If that's how we have to win, why not like that?

"It's always good to go for trophies. We always [have a] thirst for trophies, we are never satisfied."

Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe inspired France to come from behind once again and defeat Spain 2-1 in Sunday's 2021 Nations League final.

The reigning world champions, who overturned a two-goal deficit against Belgium in Thursday's semi-final, fell behind to Mikel Oyarzabal's second-half strike moments after Theo Hernandez had hit the woodwork.

However, Luis Enrique's side – who ended Italy's record 37-game unbeaten run in Wednesday's semi-final – were pegged back two minutes later as Benzema curled in magnificently.

Mbappe then doubled the blow as he netted after 80 minutes for France to secure their second trophy in three attempts following their win at the 2018 World Cup and disappointment at Euro 2020.

Marcos Alonso's wayward speculative long-range free-kick represented the only notable first-half chance as Spain struggled throughout the first 45 minutes to make their initial 66.7 per cent possession pay.

Raphael Varane was then forced off before the interval with what seemed to be an innocuous injury and matters worsened for Didier Deschamps' side after the break.

Mbappe's smart offload almost set up an opening goal but Hernandez struck the crossbar before Oyarzabal, who was released by Sergio Busquets, drilled into the bottom-right corner after 64 minutes.

However, Benzema and Mbappe combined to immediately level, with the former drifting inwards to bend a right-footed effort into the top-right corner before the latter put France into the lead.

The PSG forward appeared offside as he rounded Unai Simon following Hernandez's throughball but a VAR check stuck with the original decision as Mbappe recorded his fourth goal involvement of the Finals – more than any other player.

Oyarzabal then provided a late scare as he connected sweetly with a left-footed volley but was denied by Hugo Lloris before the France goalkeeper parried away from Yeremi Pino's first-time attempt to secure victory in the second edition of the competition.

After the 2018 World Cup final, when highlights of France's thrilling 4-2 win were played back at Luzhniki Stadium, one man in particular was enraptured.

Antoine Griezmann stood on the pitch, ignoring the celebrations that surrounded him, his gaze fixed upwards at the big screen beneath the storm-laden sky.

His hands to his mouth, eyes watering, smile beaming, the face of the man bore an expression of boyish disbelief: I was just man of the match in the World Cup final. And we won.

It's unlikely anything in Griezmann's career will ever top that victory over Croatia in the Russian capital. Win or lose, Sunday's Nations League final against Spain almost certainly won't. Still, it will be another special occasion for the Atletico Madrid forward, who is set to win his 100th cap against the national team of his adoptive country.

It also offers a chance to reflect on Griezmann's international career, which began only seven years ago. In the Didier Deschamps era, there has been no more important player.

 

Didier's favourite

Reaching a century of international games is commendable for any player – only eight men have ever achieved it for France before. What makes Griezmann unique is that all of his caps have come under the same coach.

It was Deschamps who handed Griezmann his debut on March 5, 2014 against the Netherlands, starting the forward wide on the left of a front three. Griezmann has since been used across the forward line in changing systems, but his presence in Deschamps' set-up has been constant: he has only missed four France games since his first appearance and has played in 56 matches in a row for Les Bleus, the longest such streak in their history.

 

Under Deschamps, only Olivier Giroud (101) has played more often than Griezmann, while only goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris has started more games (96 compared with Griezmann's 84) or played more minutes (8,700 to Griezmann's 7,300).

When he scored his second in the 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Finland in September, Griezmann moved level with Michel Platini on 41 international goals. Only Giroud (46) and Thierry Henry (51) have managed more in the national team's history. Given his rate of just over five international goals per year, the outright record looks well within Griezmann's reach, even if he insists it is not an "obsession" to get it.

Another record beckons in 2022: should France reach the semi-finals in Qatar, Griezmann could surpass Henry and Fabien Barthez (both on 17) for the most appearances for Les Bleus at World Cup finals.

 

Griezi does it on the biggest stage

In the 2018 World Cup final, Griezmann won and took the free-kick from which Mario Mandzukic scored the opening own goal, and he converted the penalty that restored France's lead when Croatia were beginning to take control.

It was a decisive display in the biggest match of the Deschamps era, but the fact Griezmann stepped up for his country when it mattered should not have come as a shock.

In the knockouts in Russia, Griezmann scored in the 4-3 win over Argentina, got a goal and an assist in the quarter-final with Uruguay and crossed for Samuel Umtiti's headed winner against Belgium in the last four. He won the bronze ball as the third-best player at the tournament and the silver boot for finishing as second in the goal standings, two behind England's Harry Kane on six.

 

Two years earlier, he scored twice against the Republic of Ireland, got a goal and two assists against Iceland and two more strikes against Germany in the knockouts of Euro 2016 before France fell at the final hurdle on home soil against Portugal. In both 2016 and 2018, he came third in the Ballon d'Or standings.

Griezmann won the golden boot and was named player of the tournament at Euro 2016. Indeed, in the history of the European Championship finals, only Cristiano Ronaldo (20) and Michel Platini (10) have been directly involved in more goals than the 30-year-old (nine).

 

Antoine-derful

Griezmann scored 22 goals in 74 LaLiga games for Barcelona as he struggled to find his place in the system alongside Lionel Messi under three different coaches. It was a fairly poor return for €120million. Yet for France, regardless of tactics and personnel, he has delivered consistently when it matters.

Since his debut, Griezmann has nine goals and four assists in 16 World Cup qualifying games. No player has managed more, or made more appearances. He also leads the way for chances created (33, 14 more than anyone else), and shots (46, seven more than nearest rival Paul Pogba).

In Euros qualifying, only Giroud matches Griezmann for games (10) and beats him for goals (six), while the Atleti man is again top for assists (seven). In fact, he has created 42 goalscoring chances in those games, which is 28 more than anyone else for France during his international career.

At World Cup finals, no France player has played more matches (12), scored more goals (four) or provided more assists (two) than Griezmann in the Deschamps era. His 17 chances created are, again, the most in that time.

And, at the European Championships... well, you can guess where we're going here. His seven goals and two assists in 11 games is a better return than any other France player since his debut. If you add in four goals and an assist in 11 Nations League matches – again, nobody for France has played as many – then Griezmann stands on 43 direct goal involvements in competitive internationals, which is 15 more than any other player since he made his bow on the senior stage.

 

In Spain, Griezmann went from underrated Real Sociedad talent to Atletico Madrid superstar to Barcelona let-down. For France, he has been Monsieur Dependable for more than seven years.

If he marks his 100th cap with a decisive turn in a Nations League final victory, nobody – among the French, at least – would be surprised.

Luis Enrique has no doubts about the quality of his Spain team but accepts their Nations League final opponents France have the best collection of individuals in international football.

Spain defeated European champions Italy in their semi-final on Wednesday, ending the Azzurri's world-record 37 match unbeaten run in the process.

World champions France await in the finale, with Didier Deschamps' men having come from 2-0 down to beat Belgium 3-2, which was the first time they had reversed a two-goal deficit since May 2012.

Spain's starting XI last time out was the youngest (average age of 26.8 years) of the four teams involved in the Nations League semis, and prior to their win over Italy, Luis Enrique had the impression they were most people's outside bets for the trophy.

But he relished causing something of an upset and believes they are capable of doing so again.

He told reporters: "I am convinced that we are going to have a great game and that we are going to put France in difficulty.

"I don't know if it will be enough to win us, but for us it is a very great encouragement.

"In the semi-finals we were the underdogs of the four teams and we turned that feeling around. Now we will try to do the same against the best team in the world – at an individual level, without a doubt.

"We are going to defend as we always do, by taking risks and playing face-to-face, trying to make sure that the only ball on the field is Spain's."

La Roja have certainly done a reasonable job in that respect in previous Nations League games, given they have had the most shots (126), shots on target (46), the best passing success (90.8 per cent) and best average possession (67.7 per cent) in this edition of the competition.

Luis Enrique still thinks they can get better, though.

"We still have the trump card of being a team," he continued. "We can still be a better team, we can still improve our performance.

"This is a wonderful sport that rewards those who play the best, we will try to be better than them collectively and make it happen."

But that is not to say Luis Enrique is underestimating the weapons France possess, with their front three of Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann – who is one match away from becoming only the ninth Les Bleus centurion – capable of doing damage.

"The power and quality of their front three is indisputable," Luis Enrique added. "They are very good and capable of deciding any match based on their individual quality.

"But we are not going to change one iota of what has brought us here, our ambition, our conviction and our quality."

Adrien Rabiot has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the Nations League final between France and Spain on Sunday as a result.

The Juventus midfielder started as Les Bleus came back from 2-0 down to beat Belgium 3-2 in the semi-finals, coming off for Monaco's Aurelien Tchouameni with the scores level in the 75th minute.

Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku struck in the first half but Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe hauled France level before Theo Hernandez hit a dramatic winner in the 90th minute.

However, Rabiot will not be able to participate in Sunday's showdown in Milan and is now in isolation away from the rest of the squad.

The news of the midfielder's unavailability will come as a blow to France boss Didier Deschamps, who has already lost left-back Lucas Digne to a hamstring injury and was unable to call up N'Golo Kante for the tournament, with the Chelsea star having also contracted COVID-19.

France are unable to name replacements for the pair and will be forced to face Spain at San Siro with a 21-man squad.

Karim Benzema has revealed he asked Kylian Mbappe to take France's penalty against Belgium in Thursday's Nations League semi-final so his team-mate could banish the memories of missing from the spot at Euro 2020.

Mbappe missed the crucial kick in France's shoot-out defeat to Switzerland in June's Euro 2020 last-16 tie as Les Blues suffered a shock early exit from a tournament they were deemed favourites to win.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward made no mistake from 12 yards against Belgium, though, thumping the ball into the top-right corner to level things up before Theo Hernandez's late winner set up a showdown with Spain in Sunday's final.

Benzema started France's comeback from two goals down and the Real Madrid striker was more than happy to let Mbappe take the penalty at the Allianz Stadium.

"We are both players who take penalties," he told M6. "I wanted him to take this one so I gave him the ball. I really wanted him to score. 

"After what happened at the Euros, it's been erased. On the pitch I try to make my team-mates better every time I play."

Benzema was named on the 30-man shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d'Or award on Friday after an impressive year that saw him impress for Madrid and make a surprise international comeback with France.

And fellow France forward Antoine Griezmann hailed his team-mate for the form he has shown for club and country.

"He gets the ball and puts it in the net," Griezmann told M6. "I tell him, 'when you play like that, you're just too strong for others'.

"It's awesome to watch him play, to see Karim at this level. I hope he can continue this way for Sunday's final."

Antoine Griezmann is not obsessed with breaking Thierry Henry's goalscoring record for France as he stands on the brink of reaching 100 international caps.

Griezmann will have the chance to secure silverware if he makes his landmark outing on Sunday in the Nations League final, Les Bleus having set up a clash with Spain thanks to a sensational comeback victory over Belgium.

Didier Deschamps' side trailed 2-0 at the interval but managed to turn the game around in the second half. Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe scored to draw the sides level before Theo Hernandez proved to be the unlikely hero, the full-back thundering in a 90th-minute winner.

Griezmann was not able to add to his tally of 41 goals for the national team, meaning he still trails Henry's career tally by 10.

"It is close, but it is not a goal that obsesses me," the Atletico Madrid forward told the media on Friday.

"I go games without shooting on goal, which shows how much it is not an obsession. Ten goals is not a lot, but also a lot at the same time. We're going to take it easy."

The 30-year-old helped France win the 2018 World Cup after suffering European Championship heartbreak on home soil two years earlier.

While now an experienced member of the squad, his attitude has not changed throughout his career for his country.

On nearing a century of appearances, Griezmann said: "I always like being in the France team, I'm always proud to wear these colours.

"I always love football, I'm with this locker room, the staff too. I have a little more experience and am a world champion, but otherwise I'm always the same, trying to give the best of myself offensively or defensively, compared to what the team needs."

He added: "I am very proud and very happy. I hope it will end well with a cup and a party after the game."

Griezmann is also determined to help France secure Nations League glory, in part so he can avoid having to deal with some of his Atleti team-mates, good friend Koke in particular, when he returns to the Spanish capital.

"If we lose, I'm going to have Koke, who rooms with me, making little jokes. It's the same for some Spanish friends I have in Madrid," the former Barcelona player revealed.

"Especially at the beginning, it's going to be weird. With Koke, we are together all the time, in the locker room or at home. But after five minutes you forget everything and the game begins.

"They have a very good team, they play very well. On the ball, they press high.

"With Luis Enrique, whom I adore and I admire as a coach, they have had good matches. They made the semi-finals at the European Championship, then they are in the final here."

Didier Deschamps said he never doubted Kylian Mbappe after his return to form in France's last-gasp win over Belgium in the Nations League semi-finals.

Mbappe scored a penalty as France completed a stunning Nations League comeback in Turin on Thursday, overturning a 2-0 deficit in a 3-2 triumph en route to the final thanks to Theo Hernandez's 90th-minute strike.

All eyes were on Mbappe after revealing he considered taking a break from international football following France's Euro 2020 disappointment.

Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France sensationally crashed out of Euro 2020 at the hands of Switzerland in the round of 16 but the Paris Saint-Germain star assisted Karim Benzema's goal before equalising with his 69th-minute spot-kick.

Afterwards, France head coach Deschamps hailed Mbappe, who became the youngest player to reach 50 games for Les Bleus (22 years and 291 days), overtaking Benzema (24 years and 240 days).

"Kylian [Mbappe] didn't have any doubts," Deschamps told reporters. "I have always been behind him, I saw his determination. He was full of good intentions during the Euros, he missed the efficiency in the end, but he was injured, he couldn't play the second and third game.

"There are a lot of expectations with Kylian. I've always said this, and it's not to be nice, I know very well France is a lot stronger with Kylian. Today he did it.

"Offensively, in his efforts, the way he is complementary with Benzema and [Antoine] Griezmann has added to that. It's good for France. But I never had any doubts about him.

"It will have been good for him, definitely, on a personal level, but since he arrived at the start of this week, I could sense that he felt that it was an important match for him as well, and all for the better for him and for us."

Hernandez's thunderous long-range winner meant world champions France claimed their first victory after trailing by two or more goals at half-time since May 2012 against Iceland in an international friendly.

Belgium had led 2-0 at the interval thanks to Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku but France will now meet Spain in Sunday's Nations League showpiece.

"It's the kind of football that we like when we end up on the right side of it," Deschamps said. "It's amazing to go from one emotion into another in a big game like that, against an opponent like that. We were on the wrong side of it this summer, and it hurts.

"It's hard, I put myself in Roberto Martinez's shoes when it comes to the final scoreline, it hurts. But you have to accept it. Much joy and pride, I'm here for that. I've known many great moments, and we're going to have more. Because the quality we have in this side, the spirit, the mentality even if we had to react to the situation. But to be able to turn around a situation like that, I can only be proud of what we've done tonight."

Belgium threw away plenty of their hard work from across the last five years in their Nations League defeat to France, says a frustrated Roberto Martinez.

First-half goals from Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku had seemingly put Belgium well on their way to facing Spain in Sunday's final, only for Les Bleus to fight back to win 3-2.

Theo Hernandez got the winner in the final minute of normal time, just moments after Lukaku thought he had restored Belgium's lead following Karim Benzema's strike and a Kylian Mbappe penalty.

Yet VAR came to France's aid with an offside call, as they won their first game after trailing by two or more goals at half-time since May 2012 against Iceland in a friendly.

Belgium will return to Turin to face European champions Italy in a third-place play-off this weekend. Martinez, who guided the Red Devils to a semi-final at World Cup 2018 (where they lost to France) and the quarter-finals in Euro 2020, said his side had nobody but themselves to blame.

"We are very disappointed that we could not hold onto the lead," he said in post-match media duties. "We didn't have enough control in the second half. We let France get back into the game.

"When you play against someone like France, they punish all mistakes. We brought France into the game at a time when that shouldn't happen again.

"This is a competition in which we had to show our experience and all our hard work of the past five years. The disappointment is huge because the hard work and all the efforts the team has put in has been thrown away."

The match statistics back up Martinez's complaints.

In the first half, Belgium had more shots (eight compared to France's four) and controlled the possession (55.8 per cent), attempting 389 passes in contrast to 305.

Yet Didier Deschamps' side came out a different force after the restart, mustering 12 attempts in total, with Belgium only managing three, while the possession statistics were also flipped – France having 54.4 per cent of the ball as they upped the pressure and ultimately sealed their place in the final.

 

A stunning goal from Theo Hernandez sent France into the Nations League final after they battled back to beat Belgium 3-2.

The Milan full-back struck in the 90th minute after Karim Benzema and a Kylian Mbappe penalty had cancelled out goals from Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku.

Lukaku thought he had won an enthralling contest for Belgium with 88 minutes gone, but it was ruled out for offside after a VAR check, and France made their luck count.

In an even opening to the game, Hugo Lloris made a stunning save to keep out Kevin De Bruyne's scuffed effort from close range before Mbappe went close at the other end.

With each side lining up in a 3-4-3 that cancelled out the other, the game began to drift before Carrasco collected De Bruyne's pass, drove into the box past Benjamin Pavard, cut back onto his right foot and drilled a shot in at the near post with Lloris wrong-footed.

It was 2-0 before the interval, Lukaku spinning away from the flat-footed Lucas Hernandez before side-footing high past Lloris, again at his near post.

France kept Belgium pinned back early in the second half but Antoine Griezmann got the ball stuck under his feet after a brilliant run and cut-back from Mbappe.

Mbappe was involved again when France finally capitalised on their dominance, slipping the ball to Benzema, who shot low on the turn beyond the reach of Thibaut Courtois.

Seven minutes later, Mbappe – who missed in the shoot-out loss to Switzerland at Euro 2020 – swept a penalty past Courtois after a VAR check saw Youri Tielemans punished for catching Griezmann.

A rasping effort from De Bruyne was tipped over by Lloris and Aurelien Tchouameni was denied by Courtois, with VAR intervening again when Lukaku thought he had prodded in a winner against the run of play, the Chelsea striker having strayed fractionally offside to meet Carrasco's cross.

Paul Pogba's spectacular free-kick cannoned off the crossbar before France's unlikely hero found the winner, Theo Hernandez rifling left-footed into the right-hand corner after Benjamin Pavard's cross found its way to the Rossoneri star.

France's World Cup-winning captain Hugo Lloris and Germany team director Oliver Bierhoff both rubbished FIFA's idea of a biennial showpiece tournament.

FIFA held an online summit last month to discuss moving World Cups from occurring every four years to every two, which has already been met by strong opposition within UEFA.

Lloris – who won football's coveted trophy with France at Russia 2018 – argued the four-year cycle made World Cups more "precious" but also spoke about the impact on players with a growing football schedule.

"I think the World Cup should be something quite rare, so the fact that you play it only every four years helps protect this precious element to it," Lloris said during a news conference ahead of France's Nations League semi-final against Belgium.

"As a group we are waiting for competition every four years and as a player, I think it's always something that is on your mind.  

"Things need to evolve and I think a decision should be made thinking about the players, the clubs and the countries. But it's something I'm not part of, it's something to be decided by the big institutions."

Bierhoff was part of the Germany side which were World Cup runners-up to Brazil in 2002 and has remained heavily involved in football off-field since his playing retirement in 2003.

The former Milan forward said he had not met any player or coach who felt a biennial World Cup was a good idea, also citing the impact of the participants.

"Regarding the exhaustion of the players, I think we always have to keep their health in mind, and to play a World Cup .... I haven't yet found a player or coach who has said that they believed it is a good idea," Bierhoff said.

"Also, regarding the standard of the tournament, playing a World Cup every four years is seen as the right thing by everyone involved.

"I think that everyone in football should not just focus on maximising revenue but also on assuring the quality of football."

Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez believes his side are stronger now than they were three years ago when they made the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.

Martinez's side, who are currently first in the FIFA rankings, will play their World Cup semi-final conquerors France in the final four of the Nations League on Thursday.

After their third-place finish at Russia 2018, Belgium were beaten by Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals in July, prompting suggestions the Red Devils' golden generation had missed their chance for silverware.

Martinez's starting XI in their World Cup semi-final defeat was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the tournament, which some might argue was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.

Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. 

"I think I would like to believe that we are stronger just because internally I do feel that we can cope with more players when they are suspended or they are out of the squad," Martinez said during a news conference ahead of the clash with world champions France in Turin.

"I think the pool of players for Belgium now has grown, and as well, an extra three years that we've been able to play together.

"That's what synchronises us, something that you haven't got a lot of in international football. I think we always try to have a certain continuity with the players and try to work like you would do in a club environment.

"The understanding between the players is a lot better. We've been through a lot together. In terms of experience and the pool of players, I believe that we are stronger than we were in 2018."

Martinez conceded France had also grown from their 2018 triumph, citing Kylian Mbappe's evolution into a world-class talent along with the re-emergence of Karim Benzema after international exile and Paul Pogba's return to form.

"I would believe that if you'd ask [France head coach] Didier Deschamps this, he'd also say that his team has improved as well since 2018," Martinez said. "I think this generation in French football, they've got probably three elite footballers per position."

Martinez was full of praise for Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku, who spoke out about his dislike of his tag as a "target man" earlier this week.

Lukaku, who moved from Serie A champions Inter to Champions League holders Chelsea in August, has netted eight times in Belgium's past eight matches and Martinez praised his all-round threat.

"Romelu has become a number nine that can do everything," Martinez said of Belgium's all-time leading scorer. "He can play with his back to the play and run in behind.

"He's got the power, the pace, he's got the understanding of combining with other players as someone that can play with the pace and power, but with intelligence as well.

"I think at his time at the end in Italy with Inter Milan, give him another degree of maturity as well. You're talking about player that is now at the height of his career and his outstanding knack is always scoring goals."

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