France vs Belgium: Umtiti Nods France into final, heartbreak for Belgium 

France vs Belgium: Umtiti Nods France into final, heartbreak for Belgium

France 1 Belgium 0

France through to World Cup final
Croatia or England await in Sunday’s final
Umtiti heads in second-half winner
Belgium’s wait for major final goes on

 

France will face England or Croatia in the World Cup final after edging past European neighbours Belgium in the semi-final in St Petersburg.

France booked their place in the World Cup final as a second-half header from defender Samuel Umtiti saw off Belgium.

Samuel Umtiti was the unlikely hero as France reached the World Cup final for the third time in 20 years courtesy of a 1-0 win over Belgium in St Petersburg on Tuesday.

Defender Umtiti headed home a corner from Antoine Griezmann in the 51st minute to settle the all-European tie, booking Les Bleus a trip to Moscow and a clash against either Croatia or England.

Goalkeepers Hugo Lloris and Thibaut Courtois both made smart saves to make sure an intriguing game remained scoreless at the interval.

However, Umtiti popped up with the game’s telling moment early in the second half, nodding the ball home to score his third international goal.

Belgium pushed hard for an equaliser but Roberto Martinez watched on as his team suffered their first defeat in 25 outings, ending their hopes of winning the tournament for the first time in history as their so-called golden generation came up short.

Beaten finalists at Euro 2016 on home soil, France will aim to go one better in Russia and emulate the successful squad of 1998 which included Didier Deschamps, who could emulate Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer by winning the World Cup as both a player and manager

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With Thomas Meunier suspended, Belgium shifted to a back four as Martinez selected Nacer Chadli on the right.

Still, the change in shape did not appear to bother the tournament’s top-scorers in an absorbing first half, both teams threatening a breakthrough as they refused to be overawed by the occasion.

Eden Hazard twice went close, narrowly missing the target with a low, left-footed drive before seeing a curler with his right deflected over by the head of centre-back Raphael Varane.

Lloris’ full-length dive kept out a first-time strike from Tottenham colleague Toby Alderweireld, while Courtois reacted quickly to block Benjamin Pavard’s attempt from a tight angle at the other end.

While the full-back at least hit the target, Olivier Giroud failed to test Courtois when presented with a clear sight of goal by Kylian Mbappe’s volleyed cross, poking his attempt well wide under pressure.

However, France needed just six minutes after the break to edge ahead

After Vincent Kompany’s block turned away Giroud’s shot, Griezmann’s inswinging delivery to the front post was turned in by Umtiti, who beat Marouane Fellaini to head beyond Courtois.

Martinez – who had seen his team rally from a two-goal deficit in their last-16 tie against Japan – reacted to the goal by sending on Dries Mertens in place of Mousa Dembele.

The substitute offered a threat from Belgium’s right wing too, with one teasing cross from the flank seeing Fellaini narrowly miss the target with a header as he looked to make amends for his part in the opener.

Axel Witsel did test Lloris from distance but France succeeded where Brazil had failed in the last round, standing firm to stifle their neighbours in a nervy finish and book a trip to Moscow.

Golden generation unable to deliver

Ranked among one of the pre-tournament favourites, there was optimism that Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ of players containing skipper Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku could finally deliver silverware for their country.

But the win in the previous round against five-time winners Brazil proved to be their peak, and they suffered heartbreak in a major tournament once more.

The Red Devils lost in the quarter-final of both the previous World Cup and the European Championship and their second World Cup semi-final appearance ended in defeat, just like in 1986 against a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina.

The team’s 24-match unbeaten run stretching back to September 2016 also came to an end, as manager Roberto Martinez suffered a first loss in a competitive game.

Ten of the 11 starters were Premier League-based and one of those – striker Lukaku of Manchester United, who was excellent against Brazil, was left stifled by France’s excellent centre-back pairing of Umtiti and Raphael Varane. Lukaku had just 22 touches on the ball in the whole match – the least of any player who started.

Manchester City’s De Bruyne was unable to dictate the game and although skipper Hazard started brightly, fizzing a low shot narrowly wide and another deflecting over, he too drifted out of the game.

Belgium’s only consolation is that they still have one game left to play in the tournament – Saturday’s third/fourth place play-off against the loser from the England v Croatia encounter.

Anything to fear for England or Croatia?

One place is sorted and one remains up for grabs for Sunday’s showpiece.

England against Croatia is an evenly matched contest and the Three Lions are looking to reach the final for the first time since 1966, where they won the competition on home soil.

Balkans nation Croatia saw their best performance come in 1998 when they finished third by beating the Netherlands in the play-off match. The French will start as favourites to claim the trophy but who will they face?

“I expect England to beat Croatia,” former Scotland winger Pat Nevin said on BBC Radio 5 live.”They are more powerful, and they will cause France problems.”

Former Premier League striker Dion Dublin said: “England will be thinking ‘oh dear, France are quite good’. Belgium were OK, but not as good as they could’ve been.

“When you get to the semi-finals of a World Cup you have to play well as a team, but Belgium did not look like scoring.”

Former England striker Alan Shearer added: “Whatever happens, the England boys are coming home as heroes. They have an unbelievable chance to come home as legends.”

Man of the match – Raphael Varane (France)

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