Thanks to Samuel Umtiti’s header, France made it through to their third World Cup final in 20 years. The semifinal clash against Belgium was well-fought and enthralling, despite the lack of goals. Here is what we learned when Les Bleus defeated their neighbors.
FRANCE WILL TAKE SOME BEATING
No doubt Belgium made Les Bleus look beatable, but the French definitely went up a gear against Eden Hazard and Co. compared to their underwhelming performance against Uruguay in the last-eight. They looked more dangerous in attack — Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe all posed a constant threat to the Belgium backline — while Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante looked in control throughout, Pogba in particular has got better with every match. But it was the France defense that really shone in Saint Petersburg.
Belgium for all their dominance of possession, for all the threat they posed until the final whistle, never really got a sniff of a clear-cut chance. Led by an imperious Raphael Varane, they neutralized Belgium’s much-hyped attack to record a fourth cleansheet in six matches so far. For all of the justified hype about Mbappe (see right) their opponents on Sunday should probably worry more about how they will score against Varane and Co..
SET-PIECE PRACTISE MAKES PERFECT
This tournament has been jam-packed with drama, great matches, last-minute winners and shocks. But in terms of great goals the Russia tournament has probably been a bit low on jaw-dropping feats of net-busting ability. In turn we have seen set-pieces dominate, and for all the attacking verve and talent the two teams put out on Tuesday, it was only a headed goal from a corner that separated them. It was the 67th set-piece goal scored at this tournament out of 158 (before last night’s Croatia vs England semifinal) and underlined that for all the desire to be entertained and thrilled it tends to be the hard work on the training ground that wins matches rather than moments of magic. The France-Belgium clash illustrated that perfectly, not only with the set-piece winner but with Les Bleus’ brilliant, controlled performance that was far more incisive than it was inspirational.
MBAPPE IS ALREADY THE REAL DEAL
His two-goal masterpiece against Argentina announced him to be a global star (if someone who has already been sold for $210 million actually needs announcing to the world…) but Mbappe’s performance against the Belgians was, if anything more impressive. We knew all about his pace and and goal-scoring potential, but in the city of former Russian Emperors and Empresses he looked regal in possession, displaying a maturity that should be well beyond an 18-year-old. Time and again, on top of worrying Belgium with his pace and power, Mbappe played brilliant ball after brilliant ball — his back heel flick to Giroud the headline act of a commanding performance. That he did not score and was still clearly the best player on the pitch says a lot and suggests there is a lot more to come from the fantastic Frenchman.
THIS BELGIUM GENERATION IS STILL GOLDEN
The one side that came into the tournament with the dreaded label “golden generation” attached to it was poor Belgium. But unlike previous golden generations (England in the early to mid-Noughties) this was a moniker that was well deserved. Belgium have scored, so far at least, the most goals in Russia, and been the most entertaining to boot.
They attacked at pace and without the shackles placed on other more defensively-minded sides and in Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne had the best attacking trio of the tournament. The thing with tournaments is that there can only ever be one winner, Belgium got as far as the last-four, fell to a very good France side and in that there can be no accusations of choking or not being good enough.
OLIVER GIROUD STILL STANDS TALL
The big Chelsea striker has his many detractors, at both club and country level. But although Giroud has now had 13 shots in the tournament without finding the target, he is likely to keep his place in the starting XI for the final. Didier Deschamps has been questioned for continuing to play him instead of other attacking talents such as Ousmane Dembele or Thomas Lemar. He may lack goals, but his workrate has made him a firm favorite with Deschamps, and who would rule out the chance of him scoring in Moscow on Sunday?