Almost 20 years to the day since France beat Brazil 3-0 in Paris to win their first and only World Cup, the man who captained a team that united a nation moved to within 90 minutes of getting his hands on the trophy again. Triumphant as a player back in 1998, Didier Deschamps now has the opportunity to become only the third man to repeat that feat as a manager, following in the footsteps of Brazil's Mário Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer, the German.
Players win World Cup matches, but this semi-final victory felt like a personal success story for Deschamps, who tactically outwitted Roberto Martínez, his opposite number. It was a night when France executed their game-plan so perfectly that it seemed strange to think that the country's longest-serving coach has often been accused of putting together a team with no real identity or style.
That narrative belongs to the past after Deschamps got everything right with the way that he set up his side against Belgium, who played right into France's hands.
Belgium finished the game with just about every attacking player that Martínez could call upon on the pitch and still never looked like penetrating that wall of blue shirts. Outstanding defensively, epitomised by the performances of Raphael Varane and the indefatigable N'Golo Kanté, France frustrated the life out of the Belgians.
This was their fourth clean sheet in six World Cup matches – only Argentina have scored against them in open play – yet it is the sprinkling of stardust at the other end of the pitch that makes them such a formidable package. Kylian Mbappé, who was not born when one million people lined the Champs Élysées in 1998 to celebrate the achievement of Aimé Jacquet’s team, showed yet again why he is the world’s most exciting teenager with a ball at his feet. Mbappé, quite simply, was unplayable at times.
There is something almost freakish about his pace – defenders look as though they are walking when Mbappé is running – and Belgium were petrified whenever he got on the ball. With only 10 seconds gone, Mbappé had already torn past two Belgians and that dash down the France right set the tone.
There was one moment that evoked memories of that famous photograph of Diego Maradona taken at the 1982 World Cup, when six Belgians were pictured confronting the Argentinian as he had the ball at his feet. Mbappé is not Maradona – not yet, anyway – but at the age of 19 he already intimidates and terrifies opponents.
As Mbappé stood on the edge of the area, four Belgium players were drawn towards him, leaving so much space for Benjamin Pavard, the right-back, to run in behind. Mbappé timed the pass perfectly and only an instinctive save from Thibaut Courtois, with his right boot, prevented France from taking the lead.
With his extraordinary speed, Mbappé allows France to pick teams off on the counterattack – and that is exactly what France did. They were content to retreat from the outset, sitting deep rather than pressing from the front, remaining narrow while soaking up possession – Belgium had 64 per cent of the ball – and then breaking with alacrity in the transition.
One passage of play in the first half illustrated how effective that approach can be. Kanté seized the ball deep in the France half and fed Paul Pogba, whose lovely stepover took him away from Mousa Dembélé. Mbappé set off on a run between Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany, and Pogba's slide-rule pass came so close to finding him.
It is an option that was simply not there for France two years ago, when they lost to Portugal in the European Championship final, yet their evolution since then is not just about Mbappé’s emergence. Kanté and Varane have both come into the team and given them strength through the spine, and Pogba is playing with much greater maturity.
If there is one weakness it is in the centre forward position, where Olivier Giroud has now played 497 minutes at the World Cup without scoring. Deschamps would argue that his decision to bring Giroud back into the team, after an unconvincing win over Australia in the opening match that drew criticism back home, has given them more balance up front, which is probably true.
At the same time, though, the Chelsea striker really should have taken one of the two good chances that Mbappé – who else? – set up for him.
Samuel Umtiti was not so forgiving when he met Antoine Griezmann’s inswinging corner early in the second half, heading home the goal that ended up being the defining moment in a game that played out exactly how Deschamps had hoped.
The challenge for the manager now is to finish the job by writing his name into the history books on Sunday. – Guardian