Theo Hernandez caps France’s fightback to stun Belgium in semi-final thriller


At least this time Belgium can say that they provoked a genuinely brilliant response from France. The last meeting between these countries begat rancour, with Belgium grumbling about the negativity of Didier Deschamps’s team after losing 1-0 in the 2018 World Cup semi-final. This time France were forced to attack after Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku fired Belgium into a 2-0 lead. And oh, how they attacked. Theo Hernandez’s ferocious winning goal crowned a momentous fightback to set up a duel with Spain in Sunday’s Nations League final.

It was a thrilling, topsy-turvy contest in which France looked sketchy in the first half but played with fire and pizzazz in the second period, Kylian Mbappé and Paul Pogba showing the style that will win France new admirers and many more matches if Deschamps can get them to produce it consistently.

Belgium have been top of Fifa’s world rankings for the past three years and looked to be in a dominant position at half-time in this semi-final, perhaps edging closer to landing a trophy at last. Instead they were left to lament another opportunity missed. It was made to seem all the more gut-wrenching by the fact that, just before Theo Hernandez’s decisive strike, Belgium thought Lukaku had struck again for them only for his goal to be disallowed, correctly, for offside.

Both teams came into this game full of class and doubts. France and Deschamps have been grasping for a new identity. Their defence has been rickety for a while and a front three that looks irresistible in theory – Mbappé, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann – had not yet worked well in reality.

France’s defensive weakness was quickly exposed. In the third minute Lukaku hurtled down the right and sent in a cross that proved much more troublesome to Jules Koundé than it should have. After a bungled clearance the centre-back was grateful to see Hugo Lloris make an excellent save to deny Kevin De Bruyne.

Then France showed their menace at the other end. Jason Denayer had to boot the ball away from his line after Mbappé ghosted past Courtois and tried to squeeze the ball into the net from a tight angle. Next, Mbappé clipped a dainty cross from the right to Benjamin Pavard, whose header drew a save from Thibaut Courtois.

France meant business, and they forced Belgium back in a pulsating first 15 minutes. But Belgium improved and when they pushed back, France turned strangely sheepish. Belgium sent them reeling with two goals in four minutes.

Carrasco ventured forward from wing-back in the 37th minute to invite a pass from De Bruyne just to the left of the French box. He roved into the area and feigned to centre before using Pavard as a shield and firing a low shot in at the near post past a flat-footed Lloris.

The keeper looked bewildered again four minutes later when Lukaku’ beat both him and Lucas Hernandez. After peeling off the defender at the right-hand side of the box to receive a pass from De Bruyne, the striker rammed a shot past Lloris at the near post and into the roof of the net.

France found their mojo in the second half, led by Pogba and Mbappé. Griezmann missed from two yards in the 57th minute after brilliant service by Mbappé. The PSG forward sparkled again just after the hour, befuddling a defender outside the area before pinging the ball through to Benzema near the penalty spot. Despite the efforts of the three defenders around him, Benzema swivelled and beat Courtois with a low shot.

Suddenly France were sharper everywhere – including in Belgium’s box in the 67th minute, when Griezmann beat Tielemans to the ball and got clipped by the Leicester player. Mbappé stepped up to dispatch a perfect penalty, atoning for his costly miss against Switzerland in the Euros.

De Bruyne and Pogba both went close to scoring before Lukaku thought he had done so after a lightning counterattack. With extra-time looming, Theo Hernandez detonated an explosive finale, lashing a shot from the left-hand corner of the box beyond Courtois.