Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Lamine Yamal’s wonder goal leads Spain past France and into Euro 2024 final

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Maybe this is how new empires rise. Out of the ruins of the old, with fresh visions and fresh blood, a supremacy that creates its own logic as it goes, until it begins to feel inevitable. Spain have taken the hardest possible road to Berlin, conquered Italy and Croatia and Germany and now France: their longest winning streak since 2010, a first final since 2012, and perhaps the strongest indication yet that this is a team worth remembering.

Indeed to anoint Spain as worthy finalists is to damn them with crushingly faint praise. In a way they have made this tournament, perhaps even saved it: shown that amid a fatberg of low blocks and tired, malfunctioning attacks it is possible for football to express as well as extinguish. Their women are already world champions and on Sunday the men have a chance to emulate their model: a little craft, a little graft and just a sprinkling of magic.

It was also the night when 16-year-old Lamine Yamal became the youngest goalscorer in the history of this tournament, a triumph not just for his own prodigious talent but for the system that produces him, nurtures him, throws him into a major championship semi-final and trusts him to thrash in a 25-yard thunderbolt. Dani Olmo added the winner on 25 minutes and yet for all their exuberance going forward there was resolve and character here too.

A goal down, in danger of being eaten alive, Spain simply intensified their efforts: a team utterly disdainful of the idea that they could ever be second best. By the end, as they kept the ball to a fiesta of olés, it was painful to see just how devoid of solutions Didier Deschamps’s team had become. The accusations of “defensive” football are probably a little overdone: lads, this is a team built around Kylian Mbappé. More accurately France have simply congealed, got lost, gone stale.

For many of their flimsy disappointments, this should or will be a swansong: N’Golo Kanté, the retiring Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Adrien Rabiot, perhaps even Deschamps himself. There is no grand disgrace or abject surrender to report here. Some things just end. This a squad with talent in abundance, but in need of some new energy, a unifying idea that goes beyond keeping it tight and giving it to Kylian. Contrast the faith invested in Yamine Lamal with the fate of the brilliant 18-year-old midfielder Warren Zaïre-Emery, who Deschamps deemed not worthy of a single minute.

And perhaps posterity will forget just how ominously France started the game, with an early headed goal for Randal Kolo Muani and a 14th-minute yellow card for Spain’s 38-year-old makeshift right-back Jesús Navas, which is exactly what you want when you have to play 76 minutes against Mbappé. So how did Spain turn it around? Over the coming days those five scintillating first-half minutes will be wound and rewound at great length, and yet perhaps the only real conclusion worth drawing is not in terms of tactics but mentality.

Lamine Yamal scores Spain’s superbly struck first, which arcs towards the top-left corner of Mike Maignan’s goal. Photograph: Christina Pahnke/sampics/Getty Images

This is of course a function of belief, and Luis de la Fuente’s side have this in abundance. But it is also a function of self-assurance, a well-drilled system in which everyone knows everyone else’s jobs. No Robin Le Normand in defence, no problem: Nacho simply slots in and has a monstrous night. No Pedri, no problem: Olmo simply picks up where he left off against Germany.

And if in doubt, get it to the wingers. At which point we should be clear: for all their pace and verve, Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams are not wingers in the traditional, chalk-studded sense. Indeed both goals came when they drifted into the centre, giving their full-back a brief dilemma, narrowing the pitch, sowing confusion. Kolo Muani opened the scoring, set up by Mbappé, a goal that had not been coming. As the famous meme almost has it: call an ambulance. But not for Spain!

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Perhaps France reckoned they could simply manage the situation. Sit back, pass it around, maybe hit on the break. And against most teams, this would probably work. Spain, by contrast, relish the challenge of dismantling you. First Olmo, to Álvaro Morata, back to Lamine Yamal, and suddenly the ball was sailing into the top corner: a frankly ridiculous goal and a moment that seemed to overcome him slightly, a reminder that this is still just a child with a child’s feelings, for whom the effects of this abundant gift must just feel quite weird.

Four minutes later, a cross from Navas, cleared indeterminately, and in that moment perhaps Olmo doesn’t exactly know what he wants to do with it. All he knows is that he wants the ball. Brilliant feet, brilliant determination, and an emphatic finish that clipped the heels of Jules Koundé on the way in.

Spain fans go wild as France supporters commiserate semi-final loss – video

Suddenly, having built a gameplan on letting Spain have the ball, France decided they actually wanted it. Half-time came and went and while there were few extrinsic signs of panic, not much was happening for them either. Spain were still intermittently creating openings of their own: Mike Maignan had to scamper 45 yards out of his goal to tackle a steaming Williams. France went close through the head of Dayot Upamecano, the right foot of Théo Hernandez, Mbappé cutting in from the right.

But even though France pushed and pressed, on the ledger of this night, and this tournament, they can have few complaints. The old empire is bloated and decadent and joyless. A new world is coming.

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