Midfielder Paul Pogba has dedicated France’s World Cup semi-final win over Belgium to the young footballers rescued from flooded caves after an 18-day ordeal in Thailand.
Samuel Umtiti’s second-half goal in St Petersburg was enough to get Les Bleus past Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils and into Sunday’s Moscow final against either England or Croatia.
The players were quick to express their emotion at the result on social media after the full-time whistle.
Pogba posted a picture on Instagram of the 12 boys, aged between 11 and 17, who entered the Tham Luang cave system in Chiang Rai province with their 25-year-old coach on June 23 and became trapped when heavy rain cut off their way out.
He wrote alongside it: “This victory goes to the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong #thaicaverescue #chiangrai”
The Manchester United man also indicated there was still work to do for Didier Deschamps’ side in Russia, saying of Tuesday night’s victory: “It’s great but it’s not finished.”
Forward Kylian Mbappe posted some action pictures from the match and said “WHAT A DREAM”.
Defender Raphael Varane simply posted a picture of himself celebrating alongside the words: “En finale.”
Fellow defender Lucas Hernandez was similarly joyous, saying simply: “Direction … LA FINALLLLLLLEEE !!”
Former England striker Chris Sutton, working as a World Cup pundit, accused Belgium of “bottling” it on the big stage and stuck the knife into goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who had suggested England counterpart Jordan Pickford was too short to be a great keeper.
He wrote on Twitter: “France deserved it … Varane and Umtiti outstanding defenders, Mbappe the star of the World Cu, Belgium bottled it once again in a big tournament… big guy Courthois beaten at his near post… I think little Pickford would have saved it…”
Belgium defender Thomas Meunier gave credit to France and turned his attention to Saturday’s play-off clash. His tweet read: “Hats off to @equipedefrance for qualification. Go to the end now! As for us, we still have a game! Write the history of Belgian football with a magnificent 3rd place! Saturday will be #REDTOGETHER!”
Alex Witsel is also keen for Roberto Martinez’s side to claim third place and the midfielder paid tribute to supporters who made the trip, sentiments echoed by winger Yannick Carrasco and striker Michy Batshuayi.
Jordan Henderson is desperate to extend his record-breaking unbeaten run and help England reach the World Cup final.
Gareth Southgate’s men have ripped up the script over a remarkable a month that now sees them preparing for a semi-final clash against Croatia.
It has seen widespread apathy towards the Three Lions replaced by excitement and renewed hope, with previously unheralded players stepping up and better-known names underlining their quality and in some cases changing perceptions.
Henderson is among those to have quietened the doubters this summer, with the Liverpool captain shining in a side that is now preparing to line up at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.
“It’s a special feeling to know that people back home and out here in Russia are enjoying the experience just as much as we are,” the midfielder said on the eve of the game.
“All the celebrations and the songs they’re singing back home, it inspires us as players to be able to sort of bring the nation together and put smiles on people’s faces.
“I think that’s the biggest thing so far to come out of it and we just want to continue doing everybody proud.”
There is no doubt that pride has been restored regardless of the outcome on Wednesday, when Henderson’s selection is a good omen.
The 28-year-old has not tasted defeat in an England shirt since the last World Cup four years ago, going on a 30-match unbeaten run that is the longest of any player in the country’s history.
“Someone mentioned it the other day to us,” Henderson said with a smile. “But, to be honest, I wouldn’t really look too much into it because I don’t win on my own. We win as a team.
“Just as much as if I played and we lost every match, I don’t think it would be my fault either. Of course, I want to win. We want to win as a team. But it’s not down to any individual or one player.
“It’s down to us as a team. It’s down to what we do behind the scenes, what we work on in training, all the hard work to get here. The whole squad, even people who aren’t here that have chipped in for us to be in this situation now.
“That’s what I have a focus on. The biggest thing for me is just continuing to win – and hopefully a few more wins over the next week.”
That focus on collective success over individual achievement has been key to England’s success this summer, putting them within touching distance of joining the heroes of 1966 as the only team to make a World Cup final.
Henderson takes “a lot of good things from the past in terms of 66 and what they achieved then” but is not getting ahead of himself given the threat posed by Croatia.
“I’ll obviously speak to the forwards and tell them what I think,” Henderson said. “But, at the end of the day, Dejan is a fantastic defender.
“I think he’s had his fair share of criticism over the last year or so, but he’s done so well over the last six months, really, especially after the start of the season.
“He’s suffered a lot of a criticism but he’s bounced back so well.
“For me, he’s got everything a centre-half needs: he’s aggressive, good in the air, can play out from the back, good on the ball and he’s a real leader as well, which is massive as a defender, always talking.
“I’m so pleased for him because he’s a great person as well. A great character off the field and in the dressing room.
“So, I’m pleased for him that he’s in a semi-final of a World Cup, but hopefully that journey for him ends tomorrow.
“I am very close to him at Liverpool and wish him all the best – but, like I say, hopefully that journey for him ends tomorrow.”
A thoroughly professional performance earned France a place in the World Cup finals as they beat Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday night.
Samuel Umtiti headed in the game’s solitary goal from a corner in the 51st minute.
Here’s a look at how the Red Devils approached the game.
Goals – 0
Shots – 9
Possession – 64%
Tackles – 12
Dribbles – 15
Roberto Martinez had everyone guessing before kick-off as his team sheet raised plenty of questions. In the end, he deployed a back four as Belgium set up in a 4-3-3 formation with Nacer Chadli playing right-back in place of the suspended Thomas Meunier while Jan Vertonghen was at left-back.
Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were played on either side of Romelu Lukaku up front while Mousa Dembele came into a three-man central midfield. Dries Mertens was brought on as Belgium chased the game in the second-half and made an impact as he provided more width but to no avail.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
While Belgium set up in a 4-3-3 formation, Marouane Fellaini took up an advanced role every time they had a prolonged spell of possession. He almost played as a striker, in line with the last defender, positioning himself for crosses. However, he also would drift wide, usually unmarked. That would help Belgium change the angle of attack, with Hazard often taking over from there.
Meanwhile, the space he vacated in the middle would be dropped into by De Bruyne who could help dictate play from the middle. However, the Manchester United midfielder’s positioning the final third may also have had an adverse effect on his club team-mate Lukaku who seemed stifled. The striker was unable to use his movement to good effect as Fellaini’s presence limited the space in the channels for him to exploit.
Martinez can hold his head up high. To lose the semi-finals of the World Cup on one set-piece is a bitter pill to swallow. However, for all their possession, Belgium only had nine shots compared to France’s 19. That does not read well.
Rating – 6/10