France frustrate Belgium and book World Cup final spot with 1-0 win
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Three thoughts from the first World Cup semifinal as France frustrated Belgium on their way to a 1-0 victory.
1. Umtiti heads France into World Cup final
France are through to the World Cup final and stand on the verge of their first title since 1998. Didier Deschamps' side deserved this narrow victory over a Belgium team that began well but ran out of ideas and rarely looked close to equalising Samuel Umtiti's 50th-minute goal. Les Bleus will face England or Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, and having navigated a tough route through the knockout stages, they'll feel confident of finishing the job now.
It took 15 minutes for either team to muster a genuine sight of goal. Eden Hazard had the half-chance, flashing an angled shot wide from the left side of the area after Kevin de Bruyne had seized on a defensive mistake, and the Chelsea playmaker was the liveliest player on the pitch early on. Shortly afterward he cut inside and saw a goal-bound shot deflected over by Raphael Varane; it was the less familiar figure of Toby Alderweireld, though, who came even closer to scoring, forcing a stunning save from Hugo Lloris after his shot on the turn after a half-cleared corner.
France took time to find their feet but ended the first half on top. Olivier Giroud flicked a header wide and then somehow failed to get a clean contact on Kylian Mbappe's perfect volleyed cross. Benjamin Pavard was then denied by the foot of Thibaut Courtois after fine approach work from Mbappe, and the only surprise by the interval was that the game remained goal-less.
Yet it wouldn't remain 0-0 for long once the second half began. In the 50th minute France got their goal via straightforward means, Umtiti out-jumping Marouane Fellaini and powering home a header from Antoine Griezmann's whipped corner. Giroud had two sights of a quick second goal shortly afterward, but in keeping with a frustrating performance from the striker, they were snuffed out.
Openings for Belgium were scarce as they sought a way back. Fellaini looked to atone for his mistake but headed narrowly wide from 12 yards, and Axel Witsel saw a long-range shot beaten away by Lloris, but their efforts extended to little more than huff and puff.
France saw out the win in comfort, and their celebrations could begin.
2. Lloris comes good for France yet again
If France go all the way -- and they will be overwhelming favourites to win it all now -- then they will owe a considerable debt to Lloris. The goalkeeper has made big saves at crucial times throughout this tournament and produced again on Tuesday night, making a marvellous reflex stop from Alderweireld to prevent Belgium from tipping the scales with the game's first goal.
Lloris began this World Cup with an exceptional stop against Australia from his own player, Corentin Tolisso, while their group stage opener was tightly poised and he followed that with an important block to deny Peru's Paolo Guerrero in their second game.
In the quarterfinal with Uruguay he produced arguably the best save of this World Cup, making an improbable save to prevent Martin Caceres from equalising. On Tuesday night, though, he had to look through a crowd of players to see where Alderweireld was aiming his early shot but reacted brilliantly, clawing the ball wide in what may prove to be a key moment in France's campaign.
It will be particularly sweet for the Tottenham keeper who had been criticised in some quarters before the tournament. He underpinned a good overall defensive performance for Les Bleus in which the excellent Varane rendered Romelu Lukaku a virtual irrelevance, and Pavard, who had a difficult time against Hazard in the early exchanges, grew in stature.
France's midfield won the battle of two strong, physically imposing units, and there is a feeling that they've grown, game by game, into the convincing, organised and dynamic unit that Deschamps wants them to be. There remains the sense that there should be more to come (particularly from their star-studded attack), but France have discovered an ability to land killer blows when it matters, and at a World Cup, that is what counts.
They could not be doing this without Lloris, though, and in a summer short of outstanding goalkeeping performances, he has stood out above the rest.
3. This time, Martinez gets it wrong
After Belgium's thrilling quarterfinal win over Brazil, Roberto Martinez was rightly lauded for his tactical outsmarting of Tite. Here though, Martinez got it wrong and the Red Devils, who faded after a promising start and rarely looked as fluid as they had in their previous match, will regret squandering perhaps their best-ever chance to win a World Cup.
Martinez threw out a selection surprise by pitching Moussa Dembele into his midfield and shifting Nacer Chadli to right-back in place of the suspended Thomas Meunier. It made for a curiously lop-sided starting formation: Chadli was effectively positioned as a winger when Belgium had possession, and in the early stages, it looked as if Belgium might profit.
Chadli certainly saw plenty of the ball and was allowed to aim a string of crosses into the French box. They got tighter to him as the first half progressed, though, and his effectiveness waned; it was one thing fielding him in such an attacking role, but quite another to expect him to use pace and trickery he simply does not have.
While his selection did not really compromise Belgium at the back, it did little for Belgium's fluidity or ability to create, though blame for that lies on a stodgy, ponderous midfield performance. Fielding Fellaini and Dembele together was a mistake as neither moved the ball on quickly enough and it meant the likes of Hazard and de Bruyne were simply not involved enough. There was no service for Lukaku, either, bar one cross from Witsel that the striker headed over.
On the one hand, Belgium's stars did not shine as they had in overcoming Brazil; on the other, they were not really given the platform to and they ended their campaign with a whimper, barely creating a chance to equalise.
Martinez has had a good tournament overall, but his decision-making arguably cost Belgium when it counted.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.