France’s individual quality as a group has never been in doubt. Indeed, the 2018 World Cup winners boast the deepest squad in the international game right now and have done so for a number of years. However, the best teams amount to more than just the players on the pitch. In this regard, Les Blues haven’t always measured up as well as they might have.
This was evident in the way France played against Spain in Sunday’s UEFA Nations League final. Faced with a team defined by the on-field partnerships they have forged all over the pitch, in the fluidity and interchangeability in a number of areas, Didier Deschamps’ side were generally disjointed.
Yet it was France and not Spain who got their hands on the trophy in the end and it was largely thanks to the one partnership they can count on - the one between Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe. Just as was the case in the semi-finals, it was this duo that got France over the line.
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Deployed as a front two with Antoine Griezmann the link between the midfield and attack, Benzema and Mbappe provided too much movement and general firepower for Spain to cope with. Spain’s possession-hungry approach meant they had to tolerate periods without the ball, but when the chances came France’s front two took them.
Benzema’s equaliser which restored parity just seconds after Mikel Oyarzabal had given Spain the lead didn’t even come from a genuine chance. Few expected the France forward to find the top corner from such a low percentage shot, but Benzema is currently operating at a level higher than pretty much anyone else in the game.
It’s not just that Benzema can find the net from essentially anywhere, it’s that he conducts the attacking play of any team he plays for. Anyone who has watched Real Madrid in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo age knows this and the 33-year-old has now made himself the dynamo through which so much of France’s game flows.
In Mbappe, Benzema has the perfect strike partner. With the Paris Saint-Germain forward on the pitch, France always have an outlet and Benzema knows how to find him. When one drops deep, the other spins in behind - Mbappe has recently demonstrated a willingness to play a greater role in the build-up.
One wonders what Florentino Perez thought of Benzema and Mbappe performance as a duo for France in the UEFA Nations League this week. The Real Madrid president reportedly has an obsession with taking the latter to the Spanish capital. Should he succeed in doing so, Benzema will be there for Mbappe as a ready-made partner.
Mbappe, who has faced some criticism for some of his performances for club and country this season, isn’t even playing at the peak of his powers right now yet he still delivered the big moment in France’s win over Spain at San Siro, albeit in controversial circumstances. He may have been onside thanks to a quirk in the law, but his finish was unquestionable.
Deschamps’ France might be lacking in a number of key areas, but as long as they have Benzema and Mbappe to mask their deficiencies they will compete for the top honours. The pair give them a chance in every match they play, as Spain found to their cost. This UEFA Nations League triumph might be the start of a great partnership at international level, and maybe at club level too.
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