“Ready, Leo?” I grin reassuringly towards the young Sochaux keeper; our number 1 for the day. He nods and manages a thin smile, but he has the look of a man who’s really trying to stop himself from bringing his breakfast back up. Lionel Gauthier already made his France debut against Albania in March but I’m putting a massive amount of responsibility on his young shoulders here, as between you and me he’s the one that I think can fill the Lloris-shaped gap in this France squad long-term.
In front of Leo I’m not fielding any surprises at all. Fortunately we’re playing on our home turf at the Stade de France, so I’m not budging from our plan of beautiful attacking football. We go Project: Renaissance with Sidibé, Varane, Umtiti and Mendy in defence, Bakayoko and Coquelin in the centre and Coman, Pogba and Mbappé behind Griezmann.
BAM! France get off to the most flying of starts with a goal inside 30 seconds. We work the ball through the middle, the Pogman shows his class with a superb chip between 2 Italian defenders, Sidibé half-volleys the ball across the face of goal and Antoine Griezmann nods it past Gianluigi Donnarumma. Was Griezmann stood in an offside position when the ball was played? Absolutely. Do we give even a single shit? 1-0.
5 minutes later we’re in dreamland at 2-0 when Coman carries the ball forward and squares it for Pogba. He goes for the first time shot but Rugani gets a block in, sending the ball trickling towards the far post for Griezmann to slot in again.
Fair play to Italy though, a lesser team would be shellshocked by such a horrific opening 6 minutes, but they pull one back before the 10 minute mark when Belotti and Chiesa play the ball between themselves all the way through our half. Our centre backs are at an absolute loss to stop them as they dance towards the box, and then Belotti finishes emphatically into the top corner. As exciting a start as it’s been, I tell Coquelin to stay back a bit and help out the defence.
4 minutes later our 2 goal lead’s restored. Kylien Mbappé sits narrow and slips a pass through for the overlapping Mendy, who bombs towards goal. His shot comes back off the near post but Mbappé’s on hand to drill his 20th goal for the national team past the beleaguered Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper. The excitement keeps coming when Belotti and Chiesa link up yet again in the 16th minute, with Belottu threading a good through ball into his striker partner’s path so he can place it out of Gauthier’s reach. It’s just been your bog-standard 16 minute 3-2 affair so far.
Surprisingly the loudest cheer of the first half comes just before the half hour when Belotti once again releases Chiesa, who gets himself goal-side of Umtiti, runs through on goal and shoots, but Gauthier holds onto the ball. The crowd go wild as the first save of the game is made. At 3-2. With 5 minutes to go Chiesa escapes Umtiti’s attention yet again when Verratti passes it in from the right. Chiesa takes a good touch to get clear of our centre back and then blasts the equaliser past Gauthier, who should do better too really.
With just injury time separating us from the half time break, I get that inevitable sinking feeling when Belotti attempts another pass through for Chiesa, but this time Umtiti beats him to it, drawing an ironic cheer from the Italian fans and some of the French ones too. We move the ball back up the pitch with sharp incisive passes until Mendy swings a cross in from the left wing, but Rugani beats Griezmann in the air and heads it clear. The ball comes as far as Bakayoko on the edge of the box and he watches it all the way onto his laces, before hitting one of the cleanest volleys I’ve ever seen, sending the ball rocketing into the bottom left corner.
It’s virtually impossible for the second half to live up to the same excitement level as the first and it’s more of a scrappy affair for the first half hour or so. I throw Thomas Lemar on for Coman and he gets involved almost instantly, taking part in a superb one-touch move in from the right wing. Lemar passes to Griezmann, who passes it straight on to Mbappé and from 8 yards out he absolutely balloons it. It’s a real chance wasted. What makes it worse is that within a minute Italy equalise once more. Chiesa dances past Umtiti like he does and latches onto a long ball from Sacchi before running through and rolling the ball past Gauthier for 4-4.
We go close late on, with Bakayoko, Pogba and Lemar having efforts either blocked or turned away by Donnarumma in quick succession. With 90 minutes all but up, Ongenda comes on replacing Coquelin as I keep one eye on penalties. Pogba drops back beside Bakayoko with Ongenda playing off Griezmann.
Extra time follows the pattern of the second half with chances at far more of a premium than the first 45 minutes, but Italy go closest to a 5th goal in the first period when Chiesa turns provider for Belotti, who (Surprise, surprise) goes past Umtiti like he isn’t even there. Belotti runs through on goal but Gauthier dives across goal to parry the shot behind.
With 2 minutes to go in extra time and with the shootout looming, we finally get a chance through a corner on the left hand side. Thomas Lemar floats the ball towards the penalty spot and Benjamin Mendy goes to meet it… But he’s shoved to the floor by Bonucci. The referee points to the spot, while the second youngest Frenchman on the pitch picks up the ball and steps forward. Kylien Mbappé in the 118th minute places the ball on the penalty spot and stares down Donnarumma. He runs up… AND SCORES! Slammed down the middle.
Spurred on by one of the most amazing halves of football I’ve ever seen, France have just barely vindicated our all-out attacking style and it’s seen us into our first ever European International League Final. Vive la fucking Franj.