Samuel Umtiti headed France into the World Cup final in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday with a 1-0 win, consigning Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to another bitter disappointment.
France’s own supremely talented young squad will aim to make amends for defeat on home soil in the final of Euro 2016 in Sunday’s showpiece against England or Croatia.
Here, we examine some of the key talking points.
FRANCE LOOK LIKE CHAMPIONS
France are through to the World Cup final for a third time in six tournaments and rather ominously they’re stepping it up when it matters most.
Les Bleus have looked a little blah during their campaign but in the semi-final, particularly through Kyllian Mbappe, they splashed moments of real colour and quality.
For much of the first-half, they sat back and were patient as Belgium’s metronome passing saw them dominate possession but struggle for penetration.
But it was actually Benjamin Pavard who came closest to scoring in the opening 45 minutes with the full-back denied by a stunning stop from Thibaut Courtois after an incisive ball from Mbappe.
Their deserved winner arrived six minutes after the break as Umtiti ran across Marouane Fellaini and headed home from Antoine Griezmann’s corner.
Remarkably, the goal was the 69th from a set-piece in Russia from a total of 158 so while the scorer was a little surprising, the method was not.
And ultimately there was nothing shocking about France’s performance. They produce in moments and flashes rather than free-flowing stirring football throughout and it’s a tactic straight out of Germany’s 2014 playbook.
They are efficient and effective, dominating through resolute defending and exploding on the counter before taking their chances.
While they have improved with each passing game, they’re still yet to produce their best, but perhaps they won’t even need to in order to capture their second World Cup.
Right now, France look like champions, only through assuredness rather than arrogance.
DANCE AUDITION TO REPLACE RONALDO
Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappe’s ears may have been burning with the news of Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus but it was their feet on fire in Saint Petersburg.
Indeed, a teasing tango between the pair provided a fascinating sub-plot to a game of the highest quality with each pirouette and twirl whipping up the revolutions of Real Madrid’s rumour mill.
And above the No10 of their shirts sat twin eights, because although they were separated by the scoreline, it was difficult to mark their dazzling dances differently.
Mbappe was balletic.
It’s hard to comprehend – especially with the added context of him not even being alive in 1998 – that he is still a teenager because entwined with his searing speed and filthy footwork, is intelligence.
The boy beat a man, or two, or three, but then made impressive passes into the channels or across the pitch. That type of decision making comes with years of experience but then speed hallmarks this special talent so is it any surprise he’s quicker than most?
The 19-year-old is pure entertainment and before we collectively haul him down with pressure of emerging as one of the world’s best, let’s enjoy the turn and flicks like the one he produced to play in Olivier Giroud.
Perhaps Neymar harbours hope his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate does leave so he can get out of his shadow but then Hazard will also be in Madrid’s mind.
Mbappe’s seven dribbles were only beaten by one other player as Hazard shimmied his way to 10 successful take-ons – for a second consecutive game.
The Belgian was utterly brilliant on the ball, no assist or goal was necessary to fortify a superb display.
He led with flair and attitude and was his side’s best player. Mbappe was France’s so there’s a degree of satire in the game being decided by the head of a centre-back from a corner. But neither Chelsea or PSG will be laughing as alarm bells will be ringing from their blazing displays.
DIFFERENT NUMBERS TELL GIROUD’S STORY
“If we are World Cup champions without me scoring, I don’t mind.”
France frontman Olivier Giroud may well be right with what he said in the build-up to the Belgium clash because he stretched his peculiar statistic of attempting the most shots (13) without hitting the target once.
According to Opta, he is the only one of 84 players to have attempted six or more shots in the tournament and failed to hit the target with one. But in his case, the appropriate numbers don’t tell the story.
Giroud has been contributing big time – emphasis on ‘big’ – for Deschamps. Yes he did butcher his opportunities, ruining what would have been a magical assist from Mbappe, but what he did defensively was superb.
Time and time again he was in his own half, winning headers (three), making tackles (three), clearances (two) and interceptions (one).
It’s not what you would ordinarily require from your No9 but then with the attacking thrust provided by Mbappe and Griezmann, it’s an invaluable role he’s filling.
France beat Belgium 1-0 to reach the World Cup final on Tuesday.
Samuel Umtiti headed in the only goal of the game from a corner in the second half. Belgium had the greater share of possession but Les Bleus remained solid to book their spot in the final.
Here’s a look at how they gained the tactical edge over their opponents.
Goals – 1
Shots – 19
Possession – 36%
Tackles – 18
Dribbles – 10
Didier Deschamps kept faith with his 4-2-3-1 system and pulled no surprises with a predictable but formidable line-up. Blaise Matuidi started on the left side of attacking midfield as N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba patrolled the middle. Matuidi tucked into central midfield though, allowing Pogba to stride forward when the opportunity presented itself.
Olivier Giroud was the focal point of the attack while Antoine Griezmann shuttled between midfield and attack, being the link-man between the two. Once France gained the lead though, they formed a low block, with even Giroud retreating to the edge of his own box at times. Only Kylian Mbappe was their attacking outlet.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Threat in behind
Unsurprisingly, France were happy to invite Belgium onto them and didn’t get caught up in some of their movement in forward areas. The defence held their line well while Belgium’s stepped up, leaving plenty of space in behind. As soon as France won possession, they shifted the ball with quick exchanges before looking for the through ball, usually directed at the pacey Mbappe.
Pogba was excellent in the transition, wriggling free on a few occasions before playing the forward pass. Giroud was also a target while Griezmann was excellent at pulling into space intelligently.
Surely he will finally receive the plaudits he deserves? Not a scintillating display yet again but few coaches could have so effectively neutralised this Belgian side brimming with attacking talent and flair. He hasn’t often played the champagne football the fans have yearned for, or that was expected from the attacking options at his disposal.
He’s stuck by a striker who is yet to score at this tournament and has kept more threatening players like Ousmane Demeble, Nabil Fekir and Thomas Lemar on the bench. But there’s no doubting he’s forged a formidable unit, one that has made the final.
Rating – 7/10
Belgium ended a brilliant tournament on a low as they sloped out of the World Cup with a whimper in a 1-0 defeat to France.
Roberto Martinez’s side began brilliantly but faded once Les Bleus got a grip on proceedings. And once Samuel Umtiti’s bullet header found the back of the net shortly after the break, they rarely looked like getting back into it.
Here we rate the Belgium players:
Thibaut Courtois – 8:
Was heroic in the brilliant Brazil victory, fine stop from Pavard set the tone. Saved late from Tolisso. Let down badly by misfiring attack.
Nacer Chadli – 3:
Slotted into an unfamiliar right-back slot. A bizarre decision from Martinez, who kept him on throughout. End product was woefully under par.
Vincent Kompany – 6:
Committed as always but failed to find the spark to ignite his side as Belgium meandered to defeat.
Jan Vertonghen – 5:
Once France got going found it a struggle to keep up with the roaming Mbappe. Four clearances and three tackles led his side.
Toby Alderweireld – 6:
Had more touches (120) than any player on the field, his most important one saw his snapshot brilliantly palmed away by Lloris.
Mousa Dembele – 5:
Struggled to keep Kante in check despite Belgium’s early dominance. Hooked for Mertens on the hour.
Axel Witsel – 7:
A workmanlike shift in the heart of midfield, his 98.3 per cent pass success was sublime. Didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.
Eden Hazard – 8:
Began the game like he finished against Brazil – brilliantly. Tormented Benjamin Pavard but frustratingly looked Belgium’s sole source of inspiration.
Marouane Fellaini – 6:
Dragged France’s defence this way and that, but was outmuscled by Umtiti for France’s opener. A menacing yet mystifying outing.
Kevin De Bruyne – 6:
Link-up play with Hazard was initially a danger. Showed flashes of his best but was kept largely on the periphery and faded badly.
Romelu Lukaku – 4:
Struggled to get into the game, with just 10 first half touches. Endured a torrid 90 minutes as nothing seemed to stick.
Dries Mertens – 7:
Replaced the dreary Dembele and immediately illuminated proceedings, with his crosses causing chaos.
Yannick Carrasco N/A
Entered the fray with 10 minutes remaining – only touched the ball three times.
Michy Batshuayi N/A
Came on with no time to make an impact whatsoever.