MILAN: The Nations League Final Four might just be a small mini-tournament, but this week’s action was still a reminder of one of the game’s most enduring truths – this are the forwards who win the matches.
France beat Spain 2-1 in Sunday’s final at San Siro Stadium with goals from two of the best forwards in modern play – Karim Benzema, who hit a nice shot in the corner and Kylian Mbappe who made it proof of exceptional coolness for the winner.
Unlike the clinical finish of the world champions, Spain had dominated the first 45 minutes, enjoying two-thirds of possession of the ball but, playing without a recognized striker, they barely tested French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
With first-choice center-forward Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno missing this week’s games due to injury, Spain coach Luis Enrique chose not to bring in a “pure” striker.
The lack of a true “number nine” was barely noticed in Wednesday’s 2-1 semi-final victory over Italy, where winger Ferran Torres was given a central role and took over. scored both of the team’s goals.
But against the French, Torres was brought back to his preferred position to the right of a three-pronged front line and not only was he less effective in that position, without him Spain lacked a central presence.
Mikel Oyarzabal did most of the work down the middle with Pablo Sarabia coming in from the left wing more in the second half and for the most part the French defense coped, despite losing Raphael Varane to injury in the first half.
Oyarzabal gave Spain the advantage, but after Benzema’s wonderful curling effort to equalize and Mbappe’s cool finish to give France the advantage, Spain’s frenzied attacks lacked the presence of a center forward.
Whenever France attacked with frankness, Mbappe’s disorienting pace and movement, and Benzema’s constant search for space, there was a sense of anticipation from their supporters.
On the other hand, when Spain attacked it was nice to watch but rarely carried a sense of danger.
There is so much talent in Luis Enrique’s highly promising squad and teens like Gavi and Yeremi Pino have shown here that the La Liga production chain continues despite the financial woes of the country’s two biggest clubs, Real. Madrid and Barcelona.
But for Spain to return to the top of the international game and regain the World Cup they won in 2010 or the European titles they won in 2008 and 2012, they will surely have to add a top striker to their lineup. long list of quality midfielders. and wingers.
France, however, will head to the World Cup in Qatar next November with a front line which in itself makes them one of the favorites.
Mbappe continues to develop as a player his superb control and lightning pace, combined with an intelligence in terms of the ability to exploit space and use the ball intelligently when others are in better positions.
Above all, he is now forming a real deal with Benzema in their strike partnership.
Not only are they both capable of achieving exceptional individual goals, but they combine with an efficiency that coach Didier Deschamps would have hoped for when he brought Benzema back into the fold for the European Championship in June.
With the subtle creativity of Antoine Griezmann just behind the pair, France have a top three that is arguably unmatched in the national team arena.
France beat Belgium, number one, then Spain without their key central midfielder N’Golo Kante, but with Paul Pogba who delivered a good overall performance in the final.
With the switch to the use of wingers in 3-4-3, Deschamps seems to have found the right formula to make the most of the talent at his disposal.
Luis Enrique has made real progress in rebuilding Spain after their struggles over the past few years and his side are capable of beating anyone when all goes well – as they showed against Italy on Wednesday .
But how he must wish he had a Mbappe or a Benzema of his own.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)