By Robin Bairner
As France lifted the Nations League trophy on Sunday evening at San Siro, it was unlikely that many Real Madrid fans were revelling in their success, BBC reports.
Spain, after all, were the beaten finalists, falling to a 2-1 defeat as Les Bleus became the first team in history to win the World Cup, European Championship and Nations League
It was a slow-burning affair, but the individualism of Didier Deschamps’ side was ultimately superior to the collective work of Luis Enrique’s technically gifted but ultimately toothless side.
No better was that illustrated by the indenties of France’s matchwinners.
After Mikel Oyarzabal had given Spain the lead just past the hour mark, Karim Benzema drifted into a position in the left channel as France countered before sending a curling shot just beyond Unai Simon’s reach and into the top corner.
That set up a frantic end-to-end finale, and it was Kylian Mbappe who coolly slotted the winner after Eric Garcia’s touch on Theo Hernandez’s pass rendered the Paris Saint-Germain attacker onside when it appeared inevitable he would be flagged offside.
And so while Madrid supporters will not have been enthused by the final outcome, as time passes they will take a step back and realise that there is a silver lining to this defeat.
France’s most explosive attackers are both set to be theirs next season.
With Mbappe expected to profit from his upcoming free agency by moving to Santiago Bernabeu in the summer of 2022, this duo are set to turn out in white shirts together an awful lot more regularly.
What they have hinted at so far is only a fraction of their potential. Working together on the training field, their understanding could only improve – and that would spell trouble for Los Blancos’ domestic and European rivals.
Benzema and Mbappe might only have linked sporadically, but when they did, France, who spent much of the match fruitlessly trying to get their front three involved, looked electric.
Spain’s oppressive passing and pressing made it difficult for Les Bleus’ star forwards to shine as they did on Thursday in Turin against Belgium. Indeed, Antoine Griezmann barely registered a relevant kick, but even that was insufficient to prevent the qualities of his colleagues from ultimately deciding the fixture.
Asked if it was a dream evening, Benzema, who has nine goals and seven assists with Madrid in La Liga this season, replied: “On a collective and personal level, yes. I’ve truly wanted to lift a trophy with France, and it wasn’t easy.
“We’ve shown the strength of character this team has. We gave nothing up.”
But the strength of character that Benzema talks about was also individual, as both he and Mbappe completed tales of redemption.
Benzema – arguably the form player in world football right now – only recently finished a long and controversial exile from the national team, and has been criticised on his return.
Mbappe, meanwhile, toiled during Euro 2020 and arrived in Italy with his international credentials under question. The ex-Monaco star finished the Nations League Finals with two goals in two games, and a title-winning strike to go with his effort in 2018’s World Cup final.
Just as his hero Cristiano Ronaldo earned a reputation as a big-game player, the 22-year-old is doing likewise.
Madrid, meanwhile, have never truly replaced that Portuguese superstar. This was another audition from Mbappe that suggests he is more than ready.