A flash in the night of Saint Petersburg, Samuel Umtiti’s header brought France back to a World Cup Final, 12 years after the bitter outcome of Berlin 2006. Didier Deschamps’ side prevailed over Belgium with a lone goal by their Barcelona-based center back, shattering the dreams of the Red Devils’ golden generation. Just like four years ago in Brazil, the Belgians progressively faded away and left their fans with the painful doubt that they didn’t do all that they could, especially in the decisive moments.
French goalie Hugo Lloris did his part to frustrate their scoring attempts, but basically didn’t run any big risk in the last 10 minutes, despite the late changes operated by coach Roberto Martinez. The Spanish trainer was a mixed blessing to his side over the course of the tournament. Some praised his ability to change things on the fly when going got tougher, like in the match with Japan. Some others were puzzled at his choices, and after tonight they will likely have one or two more arguments to prove their point.
Martinez proposed an unprecedented 3-4-2-1 module, with Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukalu, and Eden Hazard on the front-line. Moussa Dembele debuted from the start for the first time in a real game (the “friendly match” with England doesn’t count), but proved to be an ineffective choice, as the coach replaced him with Dries Mertens in the 60th minute. Napoli’s falso nueve didn’t change the trend of the match, but one could ask what would have been his impact, had he been on the pitch from the start.
Didier Deschamps didn’t operate any change versus the victorious match against Uruguay, except for recovering the formerly-disqualified Blaise Matuidi. The Juventus midfielder was placed together with le Petit Diable Antoine Griezmann, and sensation Kylian Mbappé behind veteran striker Olivier Giroud in a 4-2-3-1 lineup. The Chelsea’s forward ground away the best chances for his side, in a night where Griezmann seemed little inspired, and Mbappé’s best contribution was losing time in the last minutes with his jerky attitude – even if he didn’t renounce to show some glimpses of his huge talent too.
And so, the winning card for Les Bleus turned out to be once again a defender: If Raphael Varane had broken the balance against Uruguay, Samuel Umtiti scored a goal of paramount importance in the 51st minute, the only one in a game where pre-match expectations were set high, but that was inevitably cooled down by tension and tiredness on both parts. Belgium started strong and seemed to have the situation in their hands for the full first half, but the hard work mostly on the part of Eden Hazard didn’t bear fruit.
When the Red Devils went down, credits virtually started to roll on their adventure in Russia, as the last stages of the match rather saw the French getting closer to score the second, than Belgium to snatch an equaliser. Martinez missed the contribution from his powerful striker Lukalu, and his multiple changes aimed at rotating his attacking forces didn’t manage to reverse the match trend.
Hazard charged up his side early in the game with a sharp shot from the left side, that only narrowly went out. Three minutes later, he found again the right corridor on the left, and sent in a ball that forced Varane to a risky head deflection above his crossbar. In the 21st minutes, Lloris had to save the day for his team, flying to parry back a tricky shot by defender Toby Alderweireld. The Belgians seemed to have found the key of the match, repeatedly breaching from the left side, where Benjamin Pavard was struggling to control Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
But the 22-year-old right back from France did a much better job when attacking, and in the 39th minute caught with perfect timing a sublime filtering pass by Mbappé, to create the clearest scoring chance for his side, and force Thibaut Courtois to deflect the shot with his foot. One minute earlier, a header by GIroud had also created some trouble to Chelsea’s goalkeeper.
Vincent Kompany used all his experience to block again Giroud five minutes after the break, but had to concede a corner that France made the best out of. Samuel Umtiti read the cross from the right corner spot, and took off to deliver an unstoppable header, anticipating a hesitant Marouane Fellaini. The lead galvanized France, and in the 55th minute, Mbappé took the luxury of serving again Giroud with a circus-style heel pass. Belgian Moussa Dembele resorted to his last forces before leaving his spot to Dries Mertens to anticipate the French, who was ready to strike in front of Courtois.
Fellaini tried to redeem himself with a header, catching a long-range cross from the right side, but he missed the target. Belgium’s frustration became evident when Hazard had to resort to an infamous tactical foul to block a counterattack by Blaise Matuidi, scoring an inevitable yellow card, and even more clear when De Bruyne aimed for the moon (and probably hit it…) with a shot that called for a totally different outcome in the 75th minute.
The Belgians’ last attempt came from Axel Witsel, a missile from 20 meters afar that called Lloris to action again. Deschamps realized that it was better to cover himself and added some fresh forces, sending in Corentin Tolisso and Steven Nzonzi – the latter promptly evidencing himself two minutes later for a timely defensive clearance on a free kick. The momentum progressively switched in favor of the French, which risked hitting again before full time. Giroud served Griezmann almost on the penalty spot, but the Atlético Madrid striker’s conclusion was central. Then, in the 95th minute, Courtois denied the joy of the second goal to substitute Tolisso, deflecting his insidious last-second shot.
When referee Andre Cunha blew the final whistle, celebrations were all for the French, with Didier Deschamps and his boys now needing to wait until tomorrow to know who, between Croatia and England, will face them on Sunday in Moscow for La Grande Finale.
Paul Pogba wrapped up a joyful day for France and the football world in the best way, dedicating this win to the brave Wild Boards – 12 Thai footballer kids and their coach, who were successfully rescued today after spending more than two weeks trapped underground in a flooded cave. A fairy tale with a happy ending that made the world’s heart melt. Much better than winning any World Cup Final.
July 10, 2018 – World Cup Semi Finals
SCORERS: 51′ Umtiti
|FRANCE (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez; Kanté, Pogba; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (86′ Tolisso); Giroud (85′ Nzonzi) (Mandanda, Areola, Kimpembe, Rami, Sidibé, Mendy, Lemar, O. Dembélé, Fekir, Thauvin) Coach: Deschamps|
|BELGIUM (3-4-2-1): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Chadli (91′ Batshuayi), Witsel, M. Dembélé (60′ Mertens), E. Hazard; De Bruyne, Fellaini (80′ Carrasco); Lukaku (Mignolet, Casteels, Vermaelen, Boyata, Dedoncker, T. Hazard, Tielemans, Januzaj) Coach: Martinez|
REFEREE: Cunha (Uruguay)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Kanté, Mbappé (F), E. Hazard, Alderweireld, Vertonghen (B)
Click below to relive some of France and Belgium’s previous games at World Cup 2018: