ST. PETERSBURG — That brilliant, wretched, wonderful, abominable, sturdy, flimsy World Cup character, France, has gone and perched itself on a fresh rung after Tuesday night in St. Petersburg Stadium. Its taut and expert 1-0 win over Belgium in the first 2018 World Cup semifinal means that in the last 20 years, it’s the only country to advance to three World Cup finals.
How funny, because when it comes to World Cups, France has tended to tilt toward the extremes of sterling or horrifying. It either breaks through to the title and upsets Brazil as in 1998; or scores zero goals in a dud de duds in 2002; or bursts past Spain, Brazil and Portugal to the final in 2006; or presents the world an unusually depressing stew of dissension in 2010; or makes a refreshing account of itself to the quarterfinal in 2014. This time it has played its first six matches here as a bastion of competence, able to master whatever a match asks, exhilarating on attack against Argentina, smashing on defense against Belgium.
“We have given ourselves this huge privilege to reach the final of the World Cup,” said Didier Deschamps, a midfielder on the French team that made the Champs Elysees the place to be on Earth on the night of July 12, 1998, and now the manager of France’s team that made the Champs Elysees apparently the place to be on Earth on Tuesday night. He said: “We don’t do everything right but of course there is a progression. I’m very proud of them. I’m very proud of their mentality as well.”
Beyond that, get this: France will arrive in Moscow for Sunday’s final as the favorite against either England or Croatia. That’s 20 years after it arrived at the final as the not-favorite against Brazil. Win, and it can count itself pretty much among the World Cup mastodons, if it can’t already.
Far from reversing a 2-1 round-of-16 deficit to Argentina in a way that required “solidity,” as Deschamps said, but also required outrageous talent, France won a semifinal that turned on inches — or, sorry, centimeters. As it evolved it figured to turn, and so it did turn, on one moment in which one player squeezed out one feat.
That player could have been any from among France’s attackers Olivier Giroud or Antoine Griezmann or the breathtaking Kylian Mbappe, or from Belgium’s threats such as Eden Hazard or Romelu Lukaku or Kevin De Bruyne. It turned out to be Samuel Umtiti, the Barcelona defender, formerly of Lyon, who crashed into a picture in the 51st minute.
Griezmann’s corner kick, built off Blaise Matuidi’s good run that set up Giroud in the moments before, came curling in.
Belgium’s Marouane Fellaini, listed at 6-foot-3-and-then-some, went up.
France’s Umtiti, listed at 5-10, materialized.
When he headed it into the right edge of the goal, he took a goalless border scrap and gave it a French look.
Belgium Manager Roberto Martinez: “Not scoring the first goal was going to be very difficult because of the way France were set up.”
Deschamps, on the French defense: “I don’t know if it’s the greatest, but it was excellent tonight.”
Umtiti, the 24-year-old: “When one is not particularly tall, what is important is the determination,” and, “He is a very highly performing player, Marouane Fellaini, but I managed to get a header ahead of him.”
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France did not exactly exact a lockdown after that — Belgium had chances, as with a Fellaini header four minutes later that skirted just right of the post — but it did provide an exhibition of hard work, determination and know-how. It cemented that through its five wins and its one meaningless, goalless draw with Denmark at the end of group play, it has performed like an outfit that knows that to do.
“We’ve spent 49 days together” in training and playing, Deschamps said. “Who could have believed we would have reached the finals of the World Cup?” Answer: Anyone observing them.
So they haven’t created quite the rage that some other kingpins would have. A stadium for a France-Belgium match, even with 64,286 spectators, became a matter of some tepidity. One sliver of French fans proved tireless over here in one end, while one sliver of Belgian fans proved tireless over there in the other end. A neutrality reigned otherwise. There was even a sense that, in general, French and Belgian fans might have the warped sense of soccer as a part of life rather than the other way around. Noise-wise, the joint lacked Brazilians, or Colombians, or Peruvians, or Mexicans.
So here at the de facto Euro 2018, the neighbors played each other tightly. Each had flourishes that showed why it could surpass Argentina and Uruguay, as France did, or rebound from 2-0 down to Japan and then surpass Brazil, as Belgium did. They traded their shimmering talents, lots of pretty stuff going back and forth, even if it didn’t amount to much gasping threat.
Maybe Belgium’s closest chance came on 18 minutes, when Hazard sent a lovely curling thing from inside the top left of the box toward the right post of the goal, and French defender Raphael Varane appeared to get just enough hair on it to propel it just over the goal. This may have demonstrated the importance of quality hair product.
Otherwise, Belgium tried, but France mastered. Belgium wound up with “huge” disappointment, Martinez said of its highbrow generation, while France wound up still hoping to mend its huge disappointment of its Euro 2016 final loss to Portugal in Paris. It wound up on the biggest final Sunday on Earth for the third time in 20 years.
“They had better control than us,” Deschamps said of Belgium, yet France had surmounted that, too, taken its second straight win via a first goal from a defender, factoring in Varane’s clever set-piece header in the quarterfinal against Uruguay.
It looks like it can win any which way, which makes it yet another French team among all the known French teams.
— Chuck Culpepper
Yellow card to Belgium’s Vertonghen
In the 94th minute.
Yellow card to France’s Mbappe
In the 93rd minute.
Belgium substitution: Batshuyai for Chadli
In the 92nd minute.
Officials add six minutes of stoppage time
Yellow card to France’s Kante
In the 87th minute.
France substitution: Tolisso for Matuidi
In the 86th minute.
France substitution: Nzonzi for Giroud
In the 85th minute.
Lloris punches away equalizing chance
Axel Witsel lined up a shot from just outside the 18-yard box in the 80th minute that sailed through the French defense and found its way on goal. But Hugo Lloris was there for another save to preserve the French lead.
Belgium substitution: Carrasco for Fellaini
In the 80th minute.
Yellow card to Belgium’s Alderweireld
In the 71st minute.
Fellaini close to equalizing
The entrance of Dries Mertens for Belgium is already resuscitating the Red Devils’ offense. Mertens from the right wing is throwing cross after cross into the box, and in the 65th minute Marouane Fellaini got his head on to one for a promising effort that rolled barely wide. France still leads, 1-0.
Yellow card to Belgium’s Hazard
In the 63rd minute.
Belgium substitution: Mertens for Dembele
In the 60th minute.
Samuel Umtiti strikes on a corner kick in the 51st minute to put Les Bleu ahead, 1-0. Umtiti, the center back, ran to the near post on the corner from Antoine Griezmann, and flicked his header across to the back post.
Halftime: France 0, Belgium 0
After 45 minutes of free-flowing, hard-charging soccer, France and Belgium produced plenty of chances, but on a stage this lofty, it might be asking too much too soon for anyone to convert them. Les Bleu and the Red Devils spent the first half of their World Cup semifinal match in a scoreless draw.
Both sides’ marquee stars had quality attempts on goal. Both keepers made highlight-worthy saves to preserve the blank scoreboard. And midway through regulation, the longtime foes are back where they started.
Belgian forward Eden Hazard continued his brilliant play with a shot in the 16th minute that skittered wide and another moments later that was deflected just over the crossbar. Toby Alderweireld had a chance off a corner kick in the 21st minute, but France’s Hugo Lloris was equal to the task, batting the shot away with two hands.
France’s offense soon responded by unleashing fearsome 19-year-old striker Kylian Mbappe, whose speed on the pitch is unmatched. Benjamin Pavard was in one-on-one with Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois five minutes before the half, but the Devils’ net minder’s kick-save kept the match scoreless.
Kick-save by Courtois
Benjamin Pavard was in for France one-on-one with Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois in the 40th minute. Pavard aimed his shot across the goal and Courtois’s body, but the keeper got his right foot to it and nicked it out of bounds for a brilliant kick-save.
Hugo Lloris bails out French defense
The Red Devils are pouring on chances early. In the 21st minute, off a loose ball after a Belgian corner, Toby Alderweireld fired a shot that looked destined for the right side of Lloris’s net. But the keeper sprawled out for it and used two hands to punch it wide and keep the match scoreless.
Belgium gets the first shot of the night
And boy, was it a good chance. Off a turnover deep in French territory, Kevin De Bruyne flicked a pass inside the box to Eden Hazard, who turned and fired a shot quickly, thinking defenders were nearby. It skittered across the goal mouth past a diving Hugo Lloris, France’s keeper, and rolled out of bounds.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Belgian King Philippe in attendance
Starting lineups announced
- Previous results: In group play, defeated Australia, 2-1; defeated Peru, 1-0; tied Denmark, 0-0. Defeated Argentina in the round of 16, 4-3. Defeated Uruguay in the quarterfinals, 2-0.
- Best World Cup finish: Champion, 1998.
- Notable: Kylian Mbappe is the first teenager to score twice in a World Cup match since Pele did it against Sweden in 1958.
- FIFA world ranking: 7. Elo world ranking: 2.
- Previous results: In group play, defeated Panama, 3-0; defeated Tunisia, 5-2; defeated England, 1-0. Defeated Japan in the round of 16, 3-2. Defeated Brazil in the quarterfinals, 2-1.
- Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 1986.
- Notable: The Red Devils began the tournament ranked eighth in the Elo rankings. They’ve moved up five spots since.
- FIFA world ranking: 3. Elo world ranking: 3.
— Jacob Bogage
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