France powered their way into the final of the 2018 World Cup after a second-half goal from Samuel Umtiti lifted Les Bleus past a talented Belgium in their semi-final encounter at the St Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday.
Following a first half, in which Belgium dominated possession, but France had the better in chances, Umtiti headed the French into the leadon the 51st minute, just five minutes after the break.
There were some 50 minutes on the clock when France striker Olivier Giroud had his close-range effort deflected out by Belgium center back Vincent Kompany. Antoine Griezmann took charge of the ensuing corner, lofting it in for Umtiti who somehow managed to rise above Marouane Fellaini to head a shot past Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois.
The first 45 minutes of the match could best be described as cagey. France came off the mark hot with Kylian Mbappe’ immediately raising alarms for Belgium by bursting down the flank and squaring the ball for Griezmann, who was unable to line up a shot.
However, Belgium gradually grew into the game, retaining more possession as Eden Hazard began to cause problems with his runs and incisive movements on the left side. It was Hazard who had the best chances in the early going for Belgium, dragging a shot wide in the 15th minute and cutting inside to let loose an effort that was nodded out for a corner by Rafael Varane just a few minutes later.
France’s best first-half effort came in the 39th minute when Benjamin Pavard ran onto a flicked pass from Mbappe’ and went for the far corner, only to see his effort kept out by Courtois’ outstretched boot.
Umtiti headed France into the lead five minutes after the break, rising above Fellaini to head in Griezmann’s corner for what would prove the match-winner.
Kevin DeBruyne had a golden opportunity to equalise for Belgium just on the hour mark, but the Manchester City playmaker sent his close-range effort bouncing into the arms of France keeper Hugo Lloris. Axel Witsel also came close to an equalizer, latching on to a loose ball and unleashing a shot that again forced Lloris into action.
Despite Belgium’s formidable firepower, France did an impressive job of limiting the chances of Roberto Martinez’s team. The French were too strong defensively after making the difference offensively. It was obvious the difference in this game would be the small details.
Despite the high level Belgium displayed to get close to the opposition goal, they did not manage to show the opportunism they had in their five previous games at the most important moment. As the match ticked into extra time, it was the French that were asking probing for more goal.
Griezmann had a gilt-edged chance to double France’s lead on the 93rd minute, as he drove a low effort toward goal from the edge of the box that was saved by Courtois. Moments later, Corentin Tolisso had another opportunity for France, as he connected with a pass from Pogba on the edge of the box and got off a low shot that was pushed wide by Courtois.
When the final whistle blew moments later, it was all joy for the French who secured their third ever final berth, coach Didier Deschamps on the threshold of history, 20 years after leading Les Bleus to win their first and only World Cup title on home soil at France '98.
Belgium, will now play for third place on Saturday against the losers of the other semi-final match between England and Croatia.