France reached their third World Cup final on Tuesday evening as they edged past Belgium 1-0 at the Krestovsky Stadium.
A solitary strike from Samuel Umtiti in the 51st minute of the game was enough for Didier Deschamps’ men to squeeze past their European rivals and set up clash with either England or Croatia in Moscow on Sunday evening.
Speedy start in St Petersburg
Both teams enjoyed a lively start to proceedings in the first semi-final of the tournament. Belgium had the ball for the majority of the opening stages but it was France who had the first real opportunity as Paul Pogba released Kylian Mbappe with a great pass. Despite his pace, Thibaut Courtois was well out to clear.
However, careless defending from Les Bleus presented Eden Hazard with a chance but the Chelsea man fizzed his shot just wide of goal. Blaise Matuidi did go one better as he tried his luck from range but Courtois again held excellently.
Vital defensive contributions
Hazard continued to be one of Belgium’s main threats and again he managed to wriggle free and get a shot off towards goal. However, an excellent glancing header from Raphaël Varane flicked the ball over the crossbar.
Hugo Lloris also had to be at his best to keep the scores level. From a corner, Toby Alderweireld swivelled on the edge of the box and curled the ball towards the side-nettings. The French stopper somehow flew out of nowhere to palm the ball away from goal.
Olivier Giroud was guilty of spurning a chance as he met Mbappe’s cross. He could not quite get enough purchase on his shot and nudged the ball wide.
Solid stop as the first-half ends goalless
Both sides continued to create chances and Belgium were indebted to their goalkeeper for the maintained stalemate at the break. Mbappe again caused plenty of problems for the Red Devils’ defence and slipped a brilliant pass into the path of Benjamin Pavard. The full-back tore down on goal and sent a low effort towards the far bottom corner but Courtois’ ankle intervened to deflect the ball behind.
Romelu Lukaku should have done better in the final moments of the first period as Samuel Umtiti failed to clear a cross from Kevin De Bruyne. The ball bobbled towards the Belgian striker but he couldn’t react and sent it wide, leaving the scores level at the break.
Umtiti header puts Les Bleus in control
As of the pattern in the first-half, it did not take long for the French goal to be threatened after the restart. Axel Witsel sent a dangerous cross into the penalty area but Lukaku could only nod the ball high over the crossbar. Matuidi and Giroud combined well only minutes later, with the latter turning well and forcing a good block from Vincent Kompany.
From the resultant corner, France seized the lead through Umtiti. Escaping from Marouane Fellaini, the Barcelona defender produced a towering header and thundered the ball beyond the Courtois to notch his first goal of the World Cup and set the French on their way to the final.
They could even have netted a second as a stunning flick from Mbappe set Giroud free. The Chelsea man was just not able to convert though due to an excellent save from the Belgian goalkeeper.
Fighting spirit from the French
As was to be expected, Belgium started to create numerous opportunities as they aimed to equalise. Fellaini went close to doing just that but his header bounced just wide of the post.
Heading into the final ten minutes, Lloris’ goal was under siege. Witsel struck a thunderous shot but the Tottenham Hotspur stopper managed to push the ball away from danger. Lukaku then was then inches away from connecting with De Bruyne’s excellent lofted pass as Belgium’s World Cup journey all but ended.
With only minutes left, Griezmann found space in the penalty area and could have wrapped up France’s place in the final but sent his shot straight into the arms of Courtois. Tolisso also saw the goalkeeper stick out a huge hand to keep the advantage at one in the final seconds. In all though, it did not matter all too much as Les Bleus celebrated at the final whistle.
On the balance of play, Belgium could potentially feel slightly hard done by. Roberto Martinez’s men created plenty of opportunities, however it was their finishing that was lacking. France defended very well and there were a few individual performances that possibly warranted their place in the final.
As a result. they will now face either England or Croatia in the World Cup final on Sunday. Meanwhile, Belgium will contest the third/fourth place playoff on Saturday.
France: Lloris (6); Pavard (7), Varane (7), Umtiti (8), Hernández (7); Kanté (7), Pogba (7), Matuidi (7) (Tolisso (N/A), 86′); Mbappe (8), Griezmann (7), Giroud (6) (N’Zonzi (N/A), 85′).
Belgium: Courtois (7); Vertonghen (6), Kompany (7), Alderweireld (7); Witsel (6), Fellaini (7) (Carrasco (N/A), 80′), Dembele (5) (Mertens (), 60′), De Bruyne (6), Chadli (6) (Batshuayi (N/A), 90+1′); Hazard (7), Lukaku (6).
Goals: Umtiti (51′)
Referee: Andres Cunha
Yellow Cards: Hazard (63′), Alderweireld (71′), Kanté (88′), Mbappe (90+3′), Vertonghen (90+4′)
Red Cards: N/A
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