Samuel Umtiti’s lone goal sees France into World Cup final
In a tight affair in St Petersburg Didier Deschamps's side did just enough against Belgium
Samuel Umtiti of France scores during their 2018 World Cup semi-final clash with Belgium in St Petersburg. Photo: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA
Two decades after he captained one great French side to a world title on home soil, Didier Deschamps is on the brink of engineering another triumph with a new generation of stars, some of them every bit as brilliant as the ones their manager played alongside.
That a second half header by Samuel Umtiti from a set piece decided this gripping game somehow doesn’t seem to do the whole affair justice. It unfolded much as might have been expected in many ways, with Belgium retaining the ball for long stretches, though never quite gaining the level of control they would have aspired to over the contest.
The French defended well while showing a capacity to stretch their opponents every time they swept forward. They deserved their win in the end but after the failures of 2014 and, in particular, 2016, there was no shame the Belgians losing like this.
“I am proud of my players," Belgium manager Roberto Martinez said.
"France had played in the final of the European Championships two years ago, they are used to playing in big games like this but we didn’t freeze; they coped well.
“The disappointment is huge because we came here to win the World Cup, not to have a good tournament or make it to the last four. But the margins are small and it hurts more when it is just a dead-ball situation.
“Perhaps if we had that little bit more composure in the final third than we usually have. But we have to give credit to France for the way they defended; they have two great central defensive players and they prevented us from finding the moment of magic that we required.”
His side had the better of the opening stages but even then it was a game in which either side could conjure something out of nothing in the blink of an eye. It revolved around its best players with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne for one side; Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé for the other, displaying a persistent ability to turn an opportunity for their opponents utterly on its head. Just one of their touches and the pace of things, the direction; everything would change.
Once again, the French seemed happy not to have quite so much of the ball but when they won possession they sometimes used it exquisitely. Pogba, early on, almost sent Mbappé racing clean through the centre and Griezmann’s turn and angled ball into the corner for the teenager was simply brilliant.
Under pressure from Toby Alderweireld, Olivier Giroud couldn’t get the touch required to turn the cross that followed towards the target but Mbappé would cause problems all night.
He was at the heart of their chance during the first half too. It fell to Benjamin Pavard, the young right back who stood up well to the physical challenge posed by Marouane Fellaini, but struggled a little more when it came to keeping Hazard in check.
The 22-year-old showed a willingness to join in the attack when the opportunity arose and when Mbappé slipped him through with a perfectly judged pass from the edge of the area, the defender should really have lifted his shot towards the far post a little so as to prevent Thibaut Courtois saving with an outstretched leg.
Once again, Hazard was magnificent. His close control as he twisted and turned proved a nightmare for those required to hinder his progress, while his sudden shifts of speed resembled a video image that, controlled by some unseen hand, switched between slow motion and fast forward, then suddenly back again.
He and De Bruyne co-ordinated their side’s passing game and the Belgian build-up play was terrific at times. But it was from a corner that they might have taken the lead with Fellaini getting a first touch that teed up Alderweireld whose shot drew a stunning stop at full stretch from Hugo Lloris.
A few minutes after the break, the French goal came from a similar situation. A few of Griezmann’s final balls and finishes let him down a little but his corner from the right was inch perfect and Umtiti, whose header seemed to brush off Fellaini on its way, found the back of the net.
Martinez didn’t wait long before moving to change things. On came Dries Mertens for Moussa Dembele to play one side of Lukaku while Fellaini shifted forward to play on the other as Hazard and De Bruyne dropped deeper in order to exert more influence.
But the French defence stood firm with Raphael Varane shouldering the bulk of the responsibility for attending to the Manchester United striker who got nothing like the space here that he had against Brazil.
Behind him, the Belgians were back in control, but around their own area the French grip on things was never decisively loosened, with Lloris scarcely required to make a save of note until Axel Witsel pounced on a loose ball and let fly 25 from yards with 10 minutes left to play.
The reshaping of his side by Martinez continued but there was the inevitable hint of desperation about it through the closing stages and Griezmann or Corentin Tolisso would have had a second for France but for Courtois, who made solid saves on each occasion.
Time after time he and his team-mates scrambled to mount another attack but their opponents retained an edge that will make them favourites to win the final.
For Belgium, there will be thoughts of next time, but also fears that perhaps their time really has run out.
FRANCE (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Lucas; Pogba, Kante; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso, 86 mins); Giroud (Nzonzi, 85 mins). Booked: Kante, Mbappé
BELGIUM (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen, Chadli (Batshuayi, 90 mins); Dembele (Mertens, 60 mins), Witsel; Fellaini (Carrasco, 80 mins), De Bruyne, Eden Hazard; Lukaku. Booked: Eden Hazard, Alderweireld, Vertonghen.
Referee: Andres Cunha (Uruguay).