Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema were the heroes of another France comeback as the World Cup champions added a Nations League title to their trophy collection with a 2-1 win over Spain in Milan on Sunday.
Mikel Oyarzabal had fired Spain into the lead just after an hour of tense but absorbing football. However, as had been the case in the semifinal against Belgium on Thursday, a setback was just what Didier Deschamps' side needed to unleash its attacking firepower. A swift, stunning equalizer from Benzema and Mbappe's composed finish 10 minutes before full time gave France the second Nations League title, one that will offer the holders a welcome fillip ahead of their defense of the World Cup in Qatar next year.
The first half may have been short on shots and opportunities after Benzema's dart in behind early on but it was not short of qualities, both sides effectively nullifying their opponents best routes to goal. Spain kept numbers back to protect against the French break whilst Les Bleus did their best to ensure that Sergio Busquets did not get the time to turn and pick a pass to advance his side through the middle of the pitch.
When the drama did come it was thrilling. In the space of two minutes France thought they had taken the lead when Theo Hernandez's shot cannoned down off the crossbar, fell behind to Oyarzabal's drilled opener before drawing level with a luscious strike from Benzema.
France repeated their renaissance from three days ago as Mbappe darted in behind to slot home his second goal of the tournament but the trophy was not won until captain Hugo Lloris made two brilliant saves, first from Oyarzabal and then Yeremi Pino's fierce volley.
Pogba the engine for Deschamps' side
One could hardly argue France were on top in the first half -- certainly they saw far less of the ball than the team in red -- but they looked far more comfortable. Unlike against Belgium, this was a game largely being played in the right sort of spots for the French. Their midfield had moved further up the pitch, looking to constrict the supply lines to Busquets and Rodri. Instead Luis Enrique's side would have to build their attacks out wide through Cesar Azpilicueta.
The French back three were more than capable of dealing with crosses and pressure from wide, barring one dart infield from Ferran Torres in the 11th minute where he nearly slipped Pablo Sarabia in behind, there was precious little pressure on Lloris' goal. The same was true at the other end in a first half that was absorbing rather than riven with the drama that the semifinals had offered.
Much of France's best play came from Paul Pogba, a cut above the rest in the midfield duel. Early on a brilliant through pass unleashed Benzema (who may have been sweating over a VAR intervention had a goal resulted from the move) for what might have been the best opportunity of the half, the Real Madrid striker rounding Unai Simon but picking out Azpilicueta rather than Mbappe. His pirouettes and darts through the heart of the pitch invariably looked to be through the Manchester United midfielder.
He was not alone in looking a cut above the player he had been in the first half a few days ago. Didier Deschamps may have made just two changes to the side but they looked to have a clear tactical plan beyond just sitting deep. The front three pressed to force Spain out wide whilst Aurelien Tchouameni seemed to be a better foil for Pogba with and without the ball.
The issue was rather that pitting a more organized France against a Spain side that Luis Enrique invariably drills in great detail rather forced a stalemate in the early exchanges.
Nations League ends in thrilling fashion
Not until the second half did this game really burst into life. France's willingness to go three on three at the back invited pressure on their center backs when they had the ball with the Spanish attack ratcheting up the pressure in the final third. When Jules Kounde was caught out Mikel Oyarzabal found himself in a good spot to pick out a team mate from the left flank but failed to do so.
Spain's commitment to win the ball higher up the field opened the spaces that make Mbappe light up. Seconds later he was charging in behind the defense, it took a sliding intervention from Marcos Alonso to stop a Benjamin Pavard through ball from reaching him.
This was end-to-end football at its most invigorating. Spain overcommitted to one attack and Pogba cut through their faltering rearguard, pushing France down the left before Theo Hernandez clipped the ball against the bar. That commitment from the French midfield meant Busquets finally had a chance to pick a pass. It was judged to perfection. Oyarzabal's first touch took him beyond substitute Dayot Upamecano; Lloris could only watch the ball fizz into his left corner.
The Spanish lead lasted just seconds before Benzema cut onto his right foot from the left corner of the box, bending a shot into the far corner that Unai Simon had no chance to keep out. Both sides looked like they might emerge victorious from the closing period. Yeremi Pino threatened down the French right whilst Benzema fizzed with menace.
However it was to be Mbappe -- perhaps his future Real Madrid teammate -- who won the day, judging his dart behind the Spain backine to perfection, collecting Hernandez's through ball, taking his time and rolling the ball under Unai Simon. The goalkeeper left too much space at his near post but Mbappe was ruthless in exploiting that spot with a measured shot.
Spain did not go down without a fight. France defended with nerves that were a clear indication of the importance they place in a tournament only in its second cycle. They could hardly get the ball off La Furia Roja. When they did all they could do was give it back. Ultimately Lloris was their savior, two superb saves enough to keep the French siege lines intact.
This game was the apposite denouement for what has been an invigorating few days on football in northern Italy. No one could complain about a lack of competitive spirit in European international fixtures this month. These two, third-placed Italy and Belgium have taken the Nations League from curio to must watch football, a highlight in the international calendar. Happily it is only a few months until the cycle starts all over.
A hammer blow for Manchester United
If the Nations League finals have been a welcome addition to the midseason international schedule for viewers one would suspect it is cause for further anxiety among club management. As if it is not enough to see their players joining up with international teams, now they play two full throttle games in a short space of time rather than the low intensity World Cup qualifiers they would normally be involved in.
Ultimately it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who pulled the short straw as Raphael Varane pulled up just before halftime with what appeared to be a muscular issue. Deschamps could cope; all he needed to do was bring on Bayern Munich's $50 million Upamecano. His Manchester United counterpart may not find it so easy without Varane.
Having already lost Harry Maguire to injury at the end of last month, Solskjaer could now find himself heading into a critical run of fixtures without the stable foundation his side will need to navigate the threats posed by Leicester, Atalanta (twice), Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City. The United boss is already under the spotlight after a stuttering run of results prior to this international break. Should Varane's injury prove to be a significant one it may prove to be a more pivotal moment for his club than his country.