'Ouh là là remontada!': French heroes face Spain with chance to rule the roost

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Legend has it that during the Middle Ages the kings of France encouraged the rooster to become the national icon of France because of its potency as a symbol of Christianity: its crowing each morning emphasising the victory of light over darkness.

And, say the history books, the image has been ingrained in the Gallic collective psyche ever since the French Revolution in the late 18th century. No surprise that the rooster adorns the badge on the shirt of the France football team.

Firebrands, farmers, commoners and chroniclers alike would have been cock-a-hoop then about the France team following a comeback from 2-0 down to beat Belgium 3-2 in the semi-final of the Nations League on Thursday night.

Theo Hernandez hit his first senior goal in the 90th minute to tilt the tie.

Intriguingly, jubilant French media dispensed with fine old French words such as “retour" or “remontée" and deployed the Spanish word ‘remontada for the feat at the Allianz Stadium in Turin.

And why not? Remontada’s been part of the French sporting lexicon ever since 2017 when Barcelona beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 to overturn a 4-0 first leg deficit and advance to the last eight in the Champions League.

Adversary

Fittingly, Spain will be France’s opponent in Sunday’s final of the 2021 Nations League at the San Siro in Milan.

After 45 minutes on Thursday night, a trot out against the Spanish seemed unlikely.

Belgium were in another hemisphere: smoother and more cultured in possession. Their 3-4-3 set-up was a slick contrast to the kinks scuffing out from the French rendition of the formation.

Kevin De Bruyne, the silk master, sent out his ribbons from just behind the centre forward Romelu Lukaku. Eden Hazard - to Lukaku’s left - weaved some magic too.

It was De Bruyne though who set up goals for Yannick Carrasco and Lukaku in a devastating five minutes just before half-time.

Calm

Fully aware of the sharpening knives, France coach Didier Deschamps refused to panic. He deployed the same players for the second-half and Belgium began to fade when confronted by more vigour from their adversaries.

Antoine Griezmann should have reduced the deficit in the 58th minute but he fluffed a tap-in after Kylian Mbappé surged into the penalty area down the right and squared the ball for him.

Four minutes later, Mbappé seared into the area on the left and passed to Karim Benzema who, though knocked off balance and with three defenders around him, managed to fire the ball through the gaps and into the left hand side of Thibaut Courtois’ goal.

A different hue altogether now and Youri Tieleman’s thuggish hack at Griezmann’s heels in the penalty area in the 69th minute betrayed the draining belief.

Mbappé, who missed the crucial fifth penalty during the last 16 shoot-out against Switzerland at the European championships, stepped up and walloped his spot kick high to the left of Courtois.

Pressure

“I love playing in games like that,” the striker told the website of the French Football Federation. “It’s a high pressure game that everyone’s watching and the kind of game everyone wants to play in.”

The semi-final was Mbappé’s 50th senior game for his country. Six weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, he will be expected to determine other clutch matches.

Victory over Spain will furnish him and his teammates with a second international honour just over three years after France lifted its second world crown.

Triumph would also reposition France - who lead their World Cup qualifying group - as one of the teams to beat at the competition next year in Qatar.

Youth

Spain, who dispatched Italy in the semi-final at the San Siro on Wednesday, will offer a different set of problems in Sunday’s showdown.

They were oozing coltish effervescence as they hustled and bustled the Italians who went a man down late in the first-half with the dismissal of Leonardo Bonucci for two yellow cards.

The European champions threatened a remontada of their own when Lorenzo Pellegrini scored in the 83rd minute to cut the lead. But Spain held on for a 2-1 victory to end a world record 37-match unbeaten streak.

Spain coach Luis Enrique hailed the vitality of his team and especially the Barcelona midfielder Gavi, who at 17 years and 62 days, became the youngest player to represent his country.

Future

“I’ve known about him for a while because he was at the Barcelona academy,” said Enrique, a former coach at Barcelona. “There was a lot of talk about him. I don’t have any doubts about his performances. He is the present and the future of the Spain team.”

Deschamps did not emerge from the semi-final victory with such encomiums; just a few more wrinkles on his brow.

Mbappé was his boy wonder in Russia where the man marvel N’Golo Kanté also shone.

The Kanté twins - as the Chelsea midfielder is nicknamed - were ill on Thursday night and their absence was noted. The France midfielders there instead eventually boosted their own levels to compensate.

After the debacle at the European championships - where France were clear favourites - and stodgy performances in World Cup qualifiers, the Nations League has acquired much more significance for Deschamps and his band.

A title would help to alleviate the pressure on him and his players; some light could emerge from the gloom.

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