Didier Deschamps’ pragmatism prevailed over Roberto Martinez’s adventurous brand of football as France edged Belgium 1-0 courtesy a Samuel Umtiti goal to reach the final of the FIFA World Cup – the third time in their history – at the Krestovsky Stadium here today. (Match highlights)
In what turned out to be a game of fine margins, Belgium coach Martinez sprang yet another surprise with his formation, playing three centre backs and without any specialist full-back or wing-back.
It seemed to work through as Belgium gained an upper hand playing a fluid formation, one that varied from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3 to 3-5-2, in the opening stages.
When Eden Hazard cut down the left flank and sent in a cross into the box in the sixth minute, the ball was met with a panicky clearance from the French backline.
The Chelsea star interchanged positions with Kevin de Bruyne in the opening minutes and the French backline scrambled to negotiate the incoming raids.
In the 19th minute, Hazard’s shot from the left of the box was headed away by Raphael Varane, who had his back to the goal.
Two minutes later, the Real Madrid defender was in position again to divert a dangerous cross from de Bruyne.
From the resulting corner, Hugo Lloris produced one of the finest saves of the game as Jan Vertonghen’s powerful shot from inside the box was met with a diving save by the Frenchman.
Deschamps-coached France started to settle down as the game progressed, and in the 34th minute, had the best chance yet to take the lead.
Antoine Griezmann intercepted the ball from de Bruyne in midfield and lobbed it to Mbappe on the right. The France starlet’s low cross found Olivier Giroud in space on the left side of the Belgian box. Giroud, however, fluffed his effort and could only manage a weak, wayward shot.
Five minutes later, Mbappe put Benjamin Pavard through on goal. The right-back’s shot across the goal was met with an instinctive save with the right foot by Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Six minutes into the second half, France had their lead. A Giroud shot from close range was met with a last-ditch block by Vincent Kompany, resulting in a corner.
As Griezmann floated in the ball from the corner, Samuel Umtiti ran away from his marker, out-jumped the much taller Marouane Fellaini and headed in, sending the French crowd behind the goal into delirium in the 51st minute.
Martinez responded by throwing winger Dries Mertens into the mix in place of midfielder Mousa Dembele, leading to another shake-up in their formation.
Five minutes later, Mertens almost produced an assist as his cross was met with a firm header by Fellaini inside the box. It missed the goal by inches.
France maintained their own set-up and tried to play on the counter as Belgium pushed forward. De Bruyne dropped deep into midfield but the number of chances started to come down.
In the 81st minute, Axel Witsel powerful hit from outside the box was beaten away by Lloris.
That was as far as Belgium got as France put up a football equivalent of a brick wall at the back to seal their place in Sunday’s final.
When the final whistle blew, the French players rushed to the corner to celebrate as Magic System’s Magic in the air played in the background. For Belgium, it was the end of an audacious World Cup bid.