The Nations League semifinal games have not disappointed, featuring good offensive teams, great player performances, comebacks, and many goals.
Last night at Turin, France achieved a stunning comeback win over Belgians in a story of two halves.
During the first half, Belgium dominated clearly, outshooting the French 8 to 4 and controlling both possession and territory. The team coached by Roberto Martínez started in their usual 3-4-3 scheme, with Hazard playing as a left-winger in a front three consisting of him, Romelu Lukaku, and Kevin de Bruyne.
The bulk of French shots of the first half came in the first 25 mins of the game. Deschamps mirrored Belgium's back three with his own back three and 3-4-1-2. Compared to the France we saw in Euros, Deschamps's back-three experiment improved how France defended and played the ball out from the back. Belgium's 5-2-3 defensive block wasn't particularly solid or compact, a long-standing issue with Martínez's team. France had the opportunity to pass from their center backs to the attackers with relative ease at the beginning of the game. However, none of the French shots really tested a secure and confident Courtois.
Afterward, Belgium dominated very clearly through the runs of Carrasco and the passing combinations led by Hazard, De Bruyne, and Lukaku. Hazard continues to show a lot of promise when it comes to short passing and combos. He moves intelligently, his first touches and controls are sharp, he passes quickly and creatively. At the 30th minute, a 1-2 pass combo with Lukaku nearly led to a huge scoring opportunity for him.
However, it's clear that after all the injuries and inconsistency, Hazard is far from the elite dribbler he was in the past. In this game, for example, he only completed one dribble.
At the 37th minute, Belgium's efforts were rewarded when a shot from Carrasco deflected slightly from Koundé and into Lloris' goal. Three minutes later, Lukaku took advantage of a solid through ball from De Bruyne, quickly turned past Lucas Hernández, and delivered an excellent finish to the top of the goal from a sharp angle. Belgium now had a 2-0 lead.
Mbappé wakes up the French lion
Things changed significantly during the second half, with Belgium becoming more passive and the French taking control of the game. Throughout the second half, they outshot the Belgians by 12 to 3 and dominated possession and territory.
Martínez's Belgium has never been a good defensive team, and it showed once during this half. They defended in a deeper block, but French attackers had plenty of space to showcase their skills even then. Mbappé is the player who exploited this situation the best, moving and receiving the ball across the whole pitch and destabilizing the Belgian defensive with this dribbling. The first big warning came in the 57th minute when Mbappé set up a massive chance for Griezmann. Another Mbappé incursion set up Benzema three minutes later, and the Real Madrid striker would not disappoint as he successfully delivered a finish towards Courtois' far post for a well-deserved 1-2. In the 66th minute, yet another Mbappé incursion led to a penalty foul on Griezmann. Mbappé converted the ensuing penalty to tie the game.
Hazard, meanwhile, had to leave the pitch in the 75th minute due to injury concerns, and we will know more about the severity of the issue later today.
After the second French goal, the match became more even, with both teams unsuccessfully trading attacks against each other. Belgium almost managed to score in the 88th minute with a great run and cross from Carrasco to Lukaku, but the striker was ruled to be offside. Right after, Pogba hit the post with a free-kick, and in the attack that followed, France got the winning goal in yet another show of bad Belgian defending. The Belgian defense failed to clear a cross from Pavard properly, no one in Belgium was there to defend zone 14 (the area in front of the box), and Theo Hernández had all the time in the world to prepare an unstoppable shot for Courtois. 3-2 and a final victoire for the French, who move on to the final.
All in all, Martínez and Belgium show the same pros and cons of the last few years. Their attack continues to be dangerous thanks to the impetus of Carrasco, the passing creativity of De Bryune, the mobility of Hazard, and Lukaku’s masterful ability to play with his back to goal. Hazard had a decent performance, but it's clear that he's not the most impactful player in this attack anymore. In this specific game, Carrasco and Lukaku had the most influence on how Belgium attacked. While Hazard tends to play particularly well for Belgium, in this game he was not better than the version we have seen at Real Madrid recently.
Meanwhile, Courtois had a solid performance even if he was not super decisive. We can't blame him for any of the three goals, and he had a critical intervention during the second half that prevented the French from completed their remontada even earlier.
This Belgium team can be fun to watch, but the lack of evolution from Martínez's team in the last few years gives little confidence that they can challenge for any silverware in the coming years.