Italy boss Roberto Mancini has called up Atalanta's Matteo Pessina and Lazio midfielder Danilo Cataldi to his latest squad after losing Roma duo Lorenzo Pellegrini and Nicolo Zaniolo to injury.

The European champions face Switzerland and Northern Ireland in their final two qualifiers for the Qatar 2022 World Cup and currently sit top of Group C on goal difference, level on 14 points with the Swiss ahead of their crucial encounter in Rome on Friday.

Mancini, who is already without Marco Verratti due to a hip injury, confirmed earlier on Monday at a media conference that Pellegrini (knee) and Zaniolo (calf) will return to their club.

"Zaniolo was a bit unlucky because he suffered two serious injuries. He is young and he has the qualities to get over it," he said.

"It could have been an important game for him, but he has a problem and we can't take any risk. I don't think he needs my advice, he has the quality and he can improve in everything.

"We will surely replace them [Pellegrini and Zaniolo] because we also need to assess [Nicolo] Barella. We didn't call Pessina because he is not ready."

Despite this, Mancini ultimately did decide to turn to Pessina, as well as Cataldi, who receives his first senior call-up since 2017 after a solid start to the season at Lazio.

The former Manchester City manager did have better news about his defence, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci appearing to be fit to play despite missing Juventus' 1-0 win against Fiorentina at the weekend.

"They feel well, we have a training session today. We'll see how everyone feels." 

Can Cataldi step up for the Azzurri?

While Mancini is suffering from something of a midfield crisis, having players with the quality of Pessina and Cataldi to call on is not a bad problem to have.

It may be the first call-up for Cataldi in over four years, but he has achieved it off the back of some eye-catching performances at club level for Maurizio Sarri's men.

When measured against Pellegrini, whose role he will fill, Cataldi leads the way in pass success percentage (91.2), albeit the 27-year-old has only started four of his 10 league appearances, while the Roma captain has started 11.

Cataldi also has a superior pass completion rate in the opposition half, with 84.7 per cent compared to Pellegrini's 79.7, so his numbers do not appear to be indicative of him only playing easy passes.

Whether Cataldi gets an opportunity to win only his second cap remains to be seen, but he has clearly caught the eye of Mancini at least.

France boss Didier Deschamps insists he will continue to select players on merit and not in response to "buzz" ahead of his team's final two World Cup qualifiers.

The world champions sit top of Group D and will qualify for Qatar 2022 if they win either of their upcoming matches against Kazakhstan and Finland.

At a press conference ahead of the two games, Deschamps was asked why he has not yet selected Lens right-back Jonathan Clauss, despite the player making a "buzz" in Ligue 1 this season.

"A buzz? But who is making the buzz?" Deschamps asked with a smile. "I watch the matches, so a lot of players, including this Lens player, of course. Buzz or no buzz, that's not what will lead me to select a player or not.

"Of course, [Clauss] is one of the players we follow. With the characteristics that are his, after it is also a question of competition in the position. I know you're waiting for something new at every selection, but I'm not here for that."

It was put to Deschamps that perhaps the 29-year-old's age or lack of experience in the Champions League or Europa League had put the coach off selecting him.

"I have always incorporated new ones, and to draw a parallel to the age of the player, Jordan Veretout is more or less the same age," he said.

"He arrived late, he plays in Rome, in European competition of course, but that does not prevent [Clauss from being picked. [It's the same for] those of 18 years, I select [them] when I think it is the [right] moment. The 'buzz' is closed."

Does Clauss deserve a place with Les Bleus?

Deschamps has named a 23-man squad for the upcoming games, including Bayern Munich's Benjamin Pavard and Lyon's Leo Dubois, both of whom can play in Clauss’s usual position of right back.

The manager has decided to stick with what he knows for now, given the importance of getting over the line in World Cup qualifying, but is Clauss’s form at Lens more than just "buzz"?

It is difficult to compare him to Pavard as the Bayern defender only returned to action in September after an ankle injury and has only played nine games, less than half of which were in the Bundesliga.

If Clauss is going to force his way into the France squad, a likelier route may be to do so at the expense of his fellow Ligue 1 competitor, Dubois.

The obvious reason for the public clamour for Clauss is his two goals and six assists from 13 league games this season – three of those (one goal, two assists) came in his team's 4-0 thrashing of Troyes on Friday, whereas Dubois is yet to register his first goal involvement in 11 appearances.

 

However, it must be noted that Clauss primarily plays as a right wing-back, and sometimes even as a right midfielder for Lens, while Dubois predominantly plays as an orthodox full-back.

That goes someway to explaining how Clauss has created 28 chances, compared to just six from Dubois.

The Lyon man has the upper hand in terms of passing and defensive play, with superior percentages in passing accuracy (85.4 to 77.3), dribble success (58.3 to 47.1), duel success (60.6 to 56) and tackle success (60.7 to 50), though some of these may be down to Dubois operating in less-congested areas of the pitch.

Clauss comes out on top when it comes to interceptions though, making 27 so far, more than twice as many as Dubois (12).

Either way, Deschamps has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, and it cannot be a massive surprise to see him stick with the players he knows well at the end of a qualifying campaign that has not always been comfortable.  

But if Clauss can maintain his high standards, he might just get the opportunity many feel he deserves next year when Deschamps turns his attention towards World Cup preparation friendlies.

France were delighted to welcome back a home crowd at the Stade de France for Saturday's Test against Argentina, but captain Antoine Dupont suggested the occasion contributed to their sloppy play.

Les Bleus were playing a home Test for the first time since crowds returned following the coronavirus shutdown.

Dupont and his team-mates were able to celebrate the reunion with a win, edging Los Pumas 29-20 despite having to wait until the 50th minute for the first try through Thibaud Flament.

Melvyn Jaminet's work from the tee had kept France in the match up to that point and he finished with five penalties along with successful conversions from both tries.

But Dupont recognised Les Bleus lacked discipline in their opening November international, referring to "a lot of mistakes" in a post-match interview with France Tele.

"The victory is there but we are able to do much better," the stand-in skipper added.

"It also felt good to no longer sing the Marseillaise alone in a stadium. It's been a long time since we've played together.

"There was a lot of appetite and enthusiasm on everyone's part, which led to small mistakes but it was for good reason."

Olivier Giroud has questioned why Didier Deschamps did not give France's senior players any advance notice of Karim Benzema's return from international exile.

Real Madrid striker Benzema was named in France's Euro 2020 squad in May following an absence of nearly six years.

He had been frozen out by head coach Deschamps since 2015 after becoming embroiled in a blackmail scandal involving international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema has strenuously denied he was complicit in attempted blackmail.

Looking to bolster his attacking options, Deschamps decided the time was right to bring back Benzema ahead of the European Championship, but Giroud believes the move proved unsettling to France's established way of playing.

Giroud has not featured for France since their last-16 elimination at Euro 2020, when the World Cup winners bowed out on penalties to Switzerland, and it remains to be seen whether the 35-year-old's international career is over.

Addressing Benzema's surprise return, Giroud told L'Equipe: "[It] created a tactical imbalance at the team level and in the way we play. I say this frankly, and without anything against Karim.

"The France team was able to overcome this problem of tactical adaptation much later. We have seen this, especially with the Nations League [which France won in October].

"But it took a long time. Karim quickly changed our way of playing which had been well established with certain offensive profiles for five years.

"The mix didn't work overnight, especially before a competition like the Euros."

Commenting on Deschamps' decision to seemingly spring the selection on the rest of the players, Giroud said: "It was the will of the coach to proceed like that.

"He preferred that it not be heard. I can understand it. Now who am I in his eyes for him to call me first? He is the sole decision-maker.

"But I would have appreciated being warned, that he warned certain senior figures."

Giroud is second on the list of France's all-time leading scorers, netting 46 goals, of which 45 have come during Deschamps' nine years at the helm.

Only Thierry Henry (51) has more goals for France than the former Chelsea and Arsenal forward, who is now at Milan.

He was absent from the squad that won the Nations League, when Benzema and Kylian Mbappe scored in the final against Spain.

"It was a weird feeling, even though I was happy for the guys in front of my TV," Giroud said. "It's hard not to experience that with this squad that I have known for a long time, and with whom I have shared so many beautiful things. Like any sensitive person, I had a twinge in my heart."

Didier Deschamps has told his France players to end their year of mixed fortunes on a high note as the World Cup holders attempt to seal their Qatar 2022 place.

A dismal Euro 2020 effort, where pre-tournaments favourites France were knocked out in round two by Switzerland, was followed in October by Les Bleus winning the Nations League.

Now they can make sure of a return to the biggest stage as the final internationals of the year loom. France have a home game against Kazakhstan on November 13 and go away to Finland three days later. If they beat Kazakhstan, their place in next year's finals will be secure.

Deschamps wants that put to bed as soon as possible, saying: "You know what happened this summer, with our early elimination at the Euros. That didn't stop us from doing good things with the joy of winning the Nations League.

"If you add in the qualifiers, that made it three goals for us in the same year, which is rare.

"Let's make sure we get two out of three to have the peace of mind to go into next year, which will be a special year with the World Cup in November."

There were no great surprises in Deschamps' 23-player squad, which was revealed on Thursday, with veteran striker Olivier Giroud not yet back in favour. The 35-year-old striker, who sits second on France's all-time list of leading scorers, last featured in the penalty shoot-out defeat to the Swiss in Bucharest back in June.

 

Deschamps said Giroud, who is building up his fitness at Milan, is "doing some interesting things" when he plays with the Rossoneri. He started against Porto in the Champions League on Wednesday evening.

"He is not there, but he is one of the serious candidates," Deschamps said. "I can only encourage him to keep doing what he does very well."

West Ham defender Kurt Zouma earns a recall after impressing since leaving Chelsea for their London rivals, and he was joined by Hammers goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, who is on loan from Paris Saint-Germain and has yet to feature in the Premier League this season. He comes in for the injured Mike Maignan.

Manchester United's Anthony Martial and Raphael Varane miss out, with the former coming back from injury and the latter newly sidelined with a hamstring problem.

 

France squad: Alphonse Areola (West Ham, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain), Benoit Costil (Bordeaux), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham); Lucas Digne (Everton), Leo Dubois (Lyon), Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Theo Hernandez (Milan), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), Jules Kounde (Sevilla), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Kurt Zouma (West Ham); Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille, on loan from Arsenal), N'Golo Kante (Chelsea), Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurelien Tchouameni (Monaco); Wissam Ben Yedder (Monaco), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Moussa Diaby (Bayer Leverkusen), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain).

Bayern Munich and France defender Lucas Hernandez has avoided jail time for disobeying a restraining order in 2017 after a Madrid court accepted his appeal.

The 25-year-old appeared in court last week and was given until October 28 to voluntarily enter a prison of his choosing, where he faced a six-month sentence.

However, the latest appeal Hernandez lodged was upheld by the Madrid Provincial High Court on Wednesday.

Hernandez, a World Cup winner with France in 2018, has instead been handed a suspended sentence of four years and ordered to pay a €96,000 fine.

"We consider that the appeal must be accepted and that the execution of the sentence of deprivation of liberty imposed on Lucas Francois Bernard Hernandez must be suspended," a statement from the court read.

The charge relates to a conviction of domestic violence against then girlfriend and now wife Amelia de la Osa Lorente from five and a half years ago.

He was sentenced to 31 days of community service at the time and barred from approaching or communicating with his partner for the next six months.

Four months later, Hernandez was arrested at an airport in Madrid in the company of Lorente, whom he had since married. The couple also now have a child together.

Hernandez was sentenced to six months in prison in 2019 as a result of breaching the order, with his appeal initially rejected due to being a repeat offender, but his latest appeal has been accepted.

"Regarding his family and social circumstances, it has been highlighted in the appeal that the convicted person lives with Mrs de la Osa and their son, without any new incidents between them being recorded," the court statement added.

Karim Benzema deserves to become the first French winner of the Ballon d'Or since Zinedine Zidane – and that verdict comes from Zidane himself.

Real Madrid striker Benzema, who has taken over the captaincy since Sergio Ramos joined Paris Saint-Germain, is playing the best football of his career as he approaches his 34th birthday in December.

Zidane has seen that as close quarters, having had two spells as Madrid head coach during Benzema's time at the club.

Although Zidane left Los Blancos at the end of last season, he is firmly in the Benzema camp when it comes to selecting a Ballon d'Or front-runner.

Speaking to TF1's Telefoot, Zidane said: "We're talking about a player who deserves to win this Ballon d'Or.

"He's an incredible player, I had the great honour of coaching him. He knows how to do everything on the pitch. I hope he can be rewarded with this Ballon d'Or. It's the right moment because he's at the top of his game."

 

France international Benzema has been Madrid's attacking spearhead since Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Juventus in 2018 and has risen to that challenge.

He has topped the 20-goal mark in LaLiga in the last three seasons and has nine strikes in eight games so far this term in the Spanish top flight.

Last season, Benzema's 23 league goals came at an average of one every 126.13 minutes. They also came from an expected goals total of 18.81, indicating he is excelling in taking the chances that come his way.

His LaLiga shot conversion rate so far in 2021-22 is 26.47 per cent, higher than he has achieved across any full league campaign since arriving in 2009 from Lyon.

With three LaLiga titles and four Champions League wins in 12 years, Benzema has accrued plenty of silverware while with Los Blancos, much of it during Zidane's time in charge. He also helped France win the Nations League last weekend, scoring a stunning goal against Spain in the final.

Now, individual acclaim may be coming his way, although Benzema faces stiff competition, with six-time winner Lionel Messi rated a favourite for the Ballon d'Or with British bookmakers, having helped Argentina win the Copa America.

Benzema recently said it had been a long-held "dream of mine" to win the coveted award.

Robert Lewandowski's record-breaking 41-goal Bundesliga season last term also puts him firmly into contention, while Jorginho has a strong claim after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

The Ballon d'Or winner will be announced on November 29 at a ceremony in Paris.

Luis Enrique lauded Spain "pillar" Sergio Busquets after his exploits in the country's trophy-less Nations League Finals campaign.

Spain fell short in Sunday's Nations League final, beaten 2-1 by reigning world champions France at San Siro in Milan.

Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe cancelled out Mikel Oyarzabal's 64th-minute opener and while Spain were left emptyhanded, veteran captain Busquets produced another impressive display in the middle of the nation's rebuilding project.

Busquets provided his 10th assist for Spain and first since November 2019 having teed up Oyarzabal, while the 33-year-old captain led the team in tackles (four) and total duels (17) after finishing with a 92.2 per cent passing accuracy – only bettered by Eric Garcia for La Roja.

"Busquets has been named the best player of the tournament. That says a lot about his level. He's vital for us. He's the captain, but not only that," Luis Enrique said during his post-match news conference.

"He's also somebody who gives some values off the pitch and on the pitch. He gives you calmness, quietness. He's our pillar on which our defensive and attacking game are based.

"How much we've won, I don't know, but I know we were able to win against the European champions and play almost evenly with the world champions, so for the players and the team, that is all good.

"And of course, every time it will be more difficult for me to make the next selection, and that is good for me and good for us. The important thing is the team maintains its personality and will to win."

Spain ended the decider with 63.9 per cent possession and 624 passes, compared to France's 354 total passes.

Luis Enrique's Spain were left to rue a missed opportunity, having lost to eventual champions Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 semi-finals.

"Nothing was missing. It was a shame that once we scored that opening goal, that France went up the other end. It was a shame to concede when we just scored, because that's when France were at their weakest. That's the only regret we can have," the former Barcelona boss added.

"What are we missing? We're not missing anything at all. We still need to keep that same confidence, and we need to try press ahead with what we've been doing." 

"As usual, no matter who we're playing against, Spain will always play its game," Luis Enrique said. "Sometimes we play a bit better than other times, but that's normal. But I think all fans would agree that Spain always plays the same way. No matter where, no matter against whom. So I am satisfied with what I have seen this tournament."

France head coach Didier Deschamps hailed "crucial" Karim Benzema after the star forward guided Les Bleus to Nations League glory.

Benzema scored a stunning equaliser as world champions France came from behind to beat Spain 2-1 in Sunday's final in Milan.

After Mikel Oyarzabal broke the deadlock, Benzema struck moments later in sublime fashion to restore parity before Kylian Mbappe settled the contest 10 minutes from the end.

Benzema ended the Nations League Finals as the joint leading scorer alongside Mbappe and Spain's Ferran Torres to cap a particularly pleasing campaign for the Real Madrid talisman, who had spent more than five years in international exile before returning ahead of Euro 2020.

"Karim is a crucial player, and he has proven over the course of these two matches that he has very obvious talent," Deschamps told reporters.

"It's there for all to see, he is really kicked on from what he has been showing at club level with Real Madrid, he's got that desperate will to win. He's here exactly to do that, and he's communicated a great deal with his teammates, I am very happy for everyone, but especially for him.

"He needed that, he's not going to play another four or five international competitions, at least I don't think so. It's not the most important trophy, but he did everything, and he was very significant for us when it came to coming here and winning the Nations League. 

"It's important of course to have come from behind and equalised. I am personally very happy for Karim, that's why he is here. He scores a bucket-load of goals with his club and he does likewise for France, and besides the goals that he scores... he has that wonderful will to win, and you can see that come out.

"I am delighted as for the future of course, it is very important, besides the talent that he or other players might possess, there also this mental strength he's got this competitive edge which is absolutely crucial at the highest level."

Deschamps' France are now unbeaten in 25 competitive matches, only doing better once in their history between 1994 and 1999, thanks to exploits of Benzema and Mbappe at San Siro.

Mbappe finished the Nations League Finals with four goal involvements – more than any other player.

Deschamps, whose France were shocked by Switzerland in the last 16 at Euro 2020, added: "There are no regrets in football, that is part of the past, some people might agree or disagree, but there was a 10-minute window when we had a bit of a black-out [against Switzerland].

"And the scenario went against us here, we went behind by two goals [in the semi-final against Belgium], that can happen, but it was all about what we had done well before. But it was of course a bit of a sudden stop, and we did of course have ambitions to go further. But it's not a case that you have to throw everything out of the window, throw the baby out with the bathwater, quite the opposite.

"Even if it is not the same personnel. We have some young players who have very few caps, like Theo Hernandez, or Aurelien Tchouameni this evening. We threw them in there. And the team's level didn't suffer, there will be a lot of effervescence in this side, there will be competition for places and for those that are in form as you know the best possible remedy is to win trophies and there was something up for grabs tonight and I am very happy for the entire squad that was here during the two games that we won here." 

Karim Benzema hailed France's comeback ability as a sign of a "great team" after Les Bleus fought back to defeat Spain 2-1 and claim the 2021 Nations League.

The Real Madrid forward equalised after Mikel Oyarzabal opened the scoring, the seventh time in 2021 France have fallen behind first – three more times than any other calendar year.

Kylian Mbappe then scored the winner after 80 minutes, his fourth goal involvement at the Finals – more than any other player – to secure Les Bleus' second trophy in three attempts after winning the 2018 World Cup and faltering at Euro 2020.

Didier Deschamps' side are now unbeaten in 25 competitive matches, only doing better once in their history between 1994 and 1999, and Benzema pinpointed the team's comeback ability as a hallmark of how good they are.

"It's a dream evening on a collective and personal level," Benzema told M6 post-match.

"I really wanted to win a trophy with the France team, today it's done. It was a difficult match against a very good team. We have shown the strength of character.

"This team is very strong, it never gives up and we have proven it again today. It is the sign of great teams: [they] do not panic and wait for the right moment.

"We will first take advantage of this trophy and go for the World Cup."

Paul Pogba, who dominated the final with team-high figures in both touches (77) and passes (42), echoed Benzema's sentiments while bemoaning France's tendency to start slowly in games.

"It's true that we started badly," Pogba said to M6 after the game. "[It was] another first period where we were dominated by Spain [and] we had to react after a goal.

"We have to do better, we know that. But the result is victory at the end. If that's how we have to win, why not like that?

"It's always good to go for trophies. We always [have a] thirst for trophies, we are never satisfied."

Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe inspired France to come from behind once again and defeat Spain 2-1 in Sunday's 2021 Nations League final.

The reigning world champions, who overturned a two-goal deficit against Belgium in Thursday's semi-final, fell behind to Mikel Oyarzabal's second-half strike moments after Theo Hernandez had hit the woodwork.

However, Luis Enrique's side – who ended Italy's record 37-game unbeaten run in Wednesday's semi-final – were pegged back two minutes later as Benzema curled in magnificently.

Mbappe then doubled the blow as he netted after 80 minutes for France to secure their second trophy in three attempts following their win at the 2018 World Cup and disappointment at Euro 2020.

Marcos Alonso's wayward speculative long-range free-kick represented the only notable first-half chance as Spain struggled throughout the first 45 minutes to make their initial 66.7 per cent possession pay.

Raphael Varane was then forced off before the interval with what seemed to be an innocuous injury and matters worsened for Didier Deschamps' side after the break.

Mbappe's smart offload almost set up an opening goal but Hernandez struck the crossbar before Oyarzabal, who was released by Sergio Busquets, drilled into the bottom-right corner after 64 minutes.

However, Benzema and Mbappe combined to immediately level, with the former drifting inwards to bend a right-footed effort into the top-right corner before the latter put France into the lead.

The PSG forward appeared offside as he rounded Unai Simon following Hernandez's throughball but a VAR check stuck with the original decision as Mbappe recorded his fourth goal involvement of the Finals – more than any other player.

Oyarzabal then provided a late scare as he connected sweetly with a left-footed volley but was denied by Hugo Lloris before the France goalkeeper parried away from Yeremi Pino's first-time attempt to secure victory in the second edition of the competition.

After the 2018 World Cup final, when highlights of France's thrilling 4-2 win were played back at Luzhniki Stadium, one man in particular was enraptured.

Antoine Griezmann stood on the pitch, ignoring the celebrations that surrounded him, his gaze fixed upwards at the big screen beneath the storm-laden sky.

His hands to his mouth, eyes watering, smile beaming, the face of the man bore an expression of boyish disbelief: I was just man of the match in the World Cup final. And we won.

It's unlikely anything in Griezmann's career will ever top that victory over Croatia in the Russian capital. Win or lose, Sunday's Nations League final against Spain almost certainly won't. Still, it will be another special occasion for the Atletico Madrid forward, who is set to win his 100th cap against the national team of his adoptive country.

It also offers a chance to reflect on Griezmann's international career, which began only seven years ago. In the Didier Deschamps era, there has been no more important player.

 

Didier's favourite

Reaching a century of international games is commendable for any player – only eight men have ever achieved it for France before. What makes Griezmann unique is that all of his caps have come under the same coach.

It was Deschamps who handed Griezmann his debut on March 5, 2014 against the Netherlands, starting the forward wide on the left of a front three. Griezmann has since been used across the forward line in changing systems, but his presence in Deschamps' set-up has been constant: he has only missed four France games since his first appearance and has played in 56 matches in a row for Les Bleus, the longest such streak in their history.

 

Under Deschamps, only Olivier Giroud (101) has played more often than Griezmann, while only goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris has started more games (96 compared with Griezmann's 84) or played more minutes (8,700 to Griezmann's 7,300).

When he scored his second in the 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Finland in September, Griezmann moved level with Michel Platini on 41 international goals. Only Giroud (46) and Thierry Henry (51) have managed more in the national team's history. Given his rate of just over five international goals per year, the outright record looks well within Griezmann's reach, even if he insists it is not an "obsession" to get it.

Another record beckons in 2022: should France reach the semi-finals in Qatar, Griezmann could surpass Henry and Fabien Barthez (both on 17) for the most appearances for Les Bleus at World Cup finals.

 

Griezi does it on the biggest stage

In the 2018 World Cup final, Griezmann won and took the free-kick from which Mario Mandzukic scored the opening own goal, and he converted the penalty that restored France's lead when Croatia were beginning to take control.

It was a decisive display in the biggest match of the Deschamps era, but the fact Griezmann stepped up for his country when it mattered should not have come as a shock.

In the knockouts in Russia, Griezmann scored in the 4-3 win over Argentina, got a goal and an assist in the quarter-final with Uruguay and crossed for Samuel Umtiti's headed winner against Belgium in the last four. He won the bronze ball as the third-best player at the tournament and the silver boot for finishing as second in the goal standings, two behind England's Harry Kane on six.

 

Two years earlier, he scored twice against the Republic of Ireland, got a goal and two assists against Iceland and two more strikes against Germany in the knockouts of Euro 2016 before France fell at the final hurdle on home soil against Portugal. In both 2016 and 2018, he came third in the Ballon d'Or standings.

Griezmann won the golden boot and was named player of the tournament at Euro 2016. Indeed, in the history of the European Championship finals, only Cristiano Ronaldo (20) and Michel Platini (10) have been directly involved in more goals than the 30-year-old (nine).

 

Antoine-derful

Griezmann scored 22 goals in 74 LaLiga games for Barcelona as he struggled to find his place in the system alongside Lionel Messi under three different coaches. It was a fairly poor return for €120million. Yet for France, regardless of tactics and personnel, he has delivered consistently when it matters.

Since his debut, Griezmann has nine goals and four assists in 16 World Cup qualifying games. No player has managed more, or made more appearances. He also leads the way for chances created (33, 14 more than anyone else), and shots (46, seven more than nearest rival Paul Pogba).

In Euros qualifying, only Giroud matches Griezmann for games (10) and beats him for goals (six), while the Atleti man is again top for assists (seven). In fact, he has created 42 goalscoring chances in those games, which is 28 more than anyone else for France during his international career.

At World Cup finals, no France player has played more matches (12), scored more goals (four) or provided more assists (two) than Griezmann in the Deschamps era. His 17 chances created are, again, the most in that time.

And, at the European Championships... well, you can guess where we're going here. His seven goals and two assists in 11 games is a better return than any other France player since his debut. If you add in four goals and an assist in 11 Nations League matches – again, nobody for France has played as many – then Griezmann stands on 43 direct goal involvements in competitive internationals, which is 15 more than any other player since he made his bow on the senior stage.

 

In Spain, Griezmann went from underrated Real Sociedad talent to Atletico Madrid superstar to Barcelona let-down. For France, he has been Monsieur Dependable for more than seven years.

If he marks his 100th cap with a decisive turn in a Nations League final victory, nobody – among the French, at least – would be surprised.

Luis Enrique has no doubts about the quality of his Spain team but accepts their Nations League final opponents France have the best collection of individuals in international football.

Spain defeated European champions Italy in their semi-final on Wednesday, ending the Azzurri's world-record 37 match unbeaten run in the process.

World champions France await in the finale, with Didier Deschamps' men having come from 2-0 down to beat Belgium 3-2, which was the first time they had reversed a two-goal deficit since May 2012.

Spain's starting XI last time out was the youngest (average age of 26.8 years) of the four teams involved in the Nations League semis, and prior to their win over Italy, Luis Enrique had the impression they were most people's outside bets for the trophy.

But he relished causing something of an upset and believes they are capable of doing so again.

He told reporters: "I am convinced that we are going to have a great game and that we are going to put France in difficulty.

"I don't know if it will be enough to win us, but for us it is a very great encouragement.

"In the semi-finals we were the underdogs of the four teams and we turned that feeling around. Now we will try to do the same against the best team in the world – at an individual level, without a doubt.

"We are going to defend as we always do, by taking risks and playing face-to-face, trying to make sure that the only ball on the field is Spain's."

La Roja have certainly done a reasonable job in that respect in previous Nations League games, given they have had the most shots (126), shots on target (46), the best passing success (90.8 per cent) and best average possession (67.7 per cent) in this edition of the competition.

Luis Enrique still thinks they can get better, though.

"We still have the trump card of being a team," he continued. "We can still be a better team, we can still improve our performance.

"This is a wonderful sport that rewards those who play the best, we will try to be better than them collectively and make it happen."

But that is not to say Luis Enrique is underestimating the weapons France possess, with their front three of Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann – who is one match away from becoming only the ninth Les Bleus centurion – capable of doing damage.

"The power and quality of their front three is indisputable," Luis Enrique added. "They are very good and capable of deciding any match based on their individual quality.

"But we are not going to change one iota of what has brought us here, our ambition, our conviction and our quality."

Adrien Rabiot has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the Nations League final between France and Spain on Sunday as a result.

The Juventus midfielder started as Les Bleus came back from 2-0 down to beat Belgium 3-2 in the semi-finals, coming off for Monaco's Aurelien Tchouameni with the scores level in the 75th minute.

Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku struck in the first half but Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe hauled France level before Theo Hernandez hit a dramatic winner in the 90th minute.

However, Rabiot will not be able to participate in Sunday's showdown in Milan and is now in isolation away from the rest of the squad.

The news of the midfielder's unavailability will come as a blow to France boss Didier Deschamps, who has already lost left-back Lucas Digne to a hamstring injury and was unable to call up N'Golo Kante for the tournament, with the Chelsea star having also contracted COVID-19.

France are unable to name replacements for the pair and will be forced to face Spain at San Siro with a 21-man squad.

Karim Benzema has revealed he asked Kylian Mbappe to take France's penalty against Belgium in Thursday's Nations League semi-final so his team-mate could banish the memories of missing from the spot at Euro 2020.

Mbappe missed the crucial kick in France's shoot-out defeat to Switzerland in June's Euro 2020 last-16 tie as Les Blues suffered a shock early exit from a tournament they were deemed favourites to win.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward made no mistake from 12 yards against Belgium, though, thumping the ball into the top-right corner to level things up before Theo Hernandez's late winner set up a showdown with Spain in Sunday's final.

Benzema started France's comeback from two goals down and the Real Madrid striker was more than happy to let Mbappe take the penalty at the Allianz Stadium.

"We are both players who take penalties," he told M6. "I wanted him to take this one so I gave him the ball. I really wanted him to score. 

"After what happened at the Euros, it's been erased. On the pitch I try to make my team-mates better every time I play."

Benzema was named on the 30-man shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d'Or award on Friday after an impressive year that saw him impress for Madrid and make a surprise international comeback with France.

And fellow France forward Antoine Griezmann hailed his team-mate for the form he has shown for club and country.

"He gets the ball and puts it in the net," Griezmann told M6. "I tell him, 'when you play like that, you're just too strong for others'.

"It's awesome to watch him play, to see Karim at this level. I hope he can continue this way for Sunday's final."

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