Belgium vs. France score: Theo Hernandez stunner sends Les Bleus into UEFA Nations League final vs. Spain
Theo Hernandez's last-minute strike took France to the UEFA Nations League final in thrilling fashion as they overturned a two-goal deficit at halftime to beat Belgium 3-2 in Turin.
Didier Deschamps' world champions mounted a remarkable comeback effort in the second half of an absorbing semifinal, one which Belgium seemed to have wrapped up at the break after a brilliant four-minute double salvo from Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku. The latter was a thundering strike that set the tone for an outstanding clash between two European superpowers.
France responded to their first-half setback in outstanding fashion. Karim Benzema raised hopes as he wriggled into space in the penalty area after Kylian Mbappe teed him up, his off-balance strike rolling past his Real Madrid teammate Thibaut Courtois. Mbappe would then convert the penalty to draw France square, slotting home after Youri Tielemans had brought down Antoine Griezmann in the box.
Lukaku thought he had won the game four minutes from full-time when he converted a Carrasco cross from the left, but VAR spotted he had been inches ahead of Lucas Hernandez before tapping home. France went up the other end from the resulting free kick, winning a free kick that Paul Pogba clipped against the crossbar from nearly 35 yards out.
It would take something special to win this outstanding tie and that is just what Hernandez delivered, finding himself in position to pick up a half-cleared Benjamin Pavard cross just inside the box. His fizzing strike across goal flew beyond Thibaut Courtois, firing France into Sunday's final against Spain.
Moments after Lukaku doubled Belgium's lead, the television cameras cut to a visibly discombobulated Didier Deschamps. France were hardly playing vintage football -- this was the typical defense-led football that somehow made even winning a World Cup a tad underwhelming -- but they just about remained in this competition. For much of the first half, his side seemed to be bending but not breaking under the probing of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard but a late adjustment from Roberto Martinez effectively killed off the semifinal.
Moving Hazard centrally forced the France back three into one vs. one battles that left Benjamin Pavard isolated when Yannack Carrasco got on the attack. It was from there that the opening Belgium goal came. Hazard's drift into central spots caught the attention of Jules Kounde, who was too late to spot the danger on his outside. By the time he got to the shot all he could was get the slightest of deflections on the shot.
Hugo Lloris had saved France from a third-minute deficit with an outstanding save from De Bruyne low to his left but returned to par with a flat footed response to Carrasco's low drive. There was nothing he could have done for Lukaku's goal moments later. It was a brilliant rising strike from the Chelsea striker but Lucas Hernandez had committed the cardinal error of defending against the Belgian: getting so close to him that he could spin.
For all their talent at both ends of the pitch, this has been a familiar trait of French football since their World Cup win, that they are not the most tactically imaginative of sides. Change their system or change what they are facing and they -- or their manager -- can find themselves all at sea.
Equally, it was to France's credit that once they had got back into the dressing room at halftime they returned a far more dangerous, effective proposition at both ends of the pitch. Perhaps the simple fact that they had no choice but to go on the offensive. Unsurprisingly, it rather suited some of the best attacking talent in world football.
Mbappe had been imposing himself on this game long before Belgium took the lead. It is often said that he is not always on the same wavelength as his French teammates. It is easy to see why when he moves at such speed. He has a burst so explosive that he was even chasing down his own heavy touches. How could anyone keep up in mind or body?
His combination play with Benzema and Griezmann still seems more effective in theory than in practice, but it improved dramatically as the game went on. Mbappe embarrassed Carrasco down the right, quick feet taking him to the byline to cut back for Griezmann, the slightest of touches from Toby Alderweireld denying him the goal. The PSG forward's assist came as much through individual brilliance as team play. He beat two defenders before teeing up Benzema to revive French hopes with a half-hour left to go.
The France attack seems more like three individuals who Thursday night played very, very well, but that is just international football for most sides. Belgium might be more effective because this has been their frontline for the best part of a decade. Other nations can, on occasion, import sections of club teams wholesale, but most international managers only have the time to do what Deschamps has done: Put his best players in their most comfortable positions and trust that they can figure it out.
Mbappe certainly did that. His running stretched Belgium's back three wide. He was direct and fearless on the ball. And at the crucial moment -- with all the memories of Euro 2020 and that shootout miss against Switzerland presumably coursing through his synapses -- he stepped up to take the pivotal spot kick and made no mistake. He may not have been France's game-winner but Les Bleus would have been out of the game if it weren't for him.
The Golden generation's wait goes on
It might just be Qatar or bust for Belgium. International silverware has seemed a matter of time for so long that it is curious to look at Roberto Martinez's squad and conclude that perhaps their moment has passed. As France's intensity ratcheted up in the closing stage of this game, this team looked like an ageing defense shielded by a midfield that is not what it once was with many forwards ahead of them that seem to be struggling with injuries more often than not. Perhaps only Lukaku looks like a player in his prime.
That it is scarcely a year until the World Cup means it feels a little premature to write off Belgium entirely. Lukaku, De Bruyne and Courtois all figure to be world-class performers then as they are now. But the pressure will certainly be on this golden generation. They may have only one more tournament left in them.