As we approach the end of this insane, wonderful tournament, all that’s left is for the last men standing to take their places. With the second semi-final to be played later, tonight’s combatants will be playing for the privilege of playing France in the final, with Didier Deschamps and his men just one game away from the ultimate accolade in football: the World Cup.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy for the French, though, and they had to beat a very talented Belgium side to do so. Here’s how that went.
- This was a game that was either terrible or a high-quality tactical battle, depending on your perspective. While accusations of France being “an anti-football team” were very harsh, it is undeniable that France set their stall up to frustrate Belgium’s star-studded squad, and control the flow of the game, rather than to showcase their own considerable talent.
- However, Didier Deschamps’ game plan worked perfectly – and impressively, too – as Les Blues came out 1-0 winners thanks to Samuel Umtiti’s header.
- Belgium started the brighter, as Roberto Martinez’s side – in a slightly more conservative formation than usual – looked to take the game to their opponents.
- Eden Hazard looked a menace against Benjamin Pavard, while Kevin De Bruyne continually buzzed around between the French midfield. Nacer Chadli, playing in right-back in the place of the suspended Thomas Meunier, also looked threatening. Hugo Lloris was called upon to make some key saves.
- A good start is all well and good, but Belgium crucially failed to back that up with goals.
- France gradually worked their way into the game, with Olivier Giroud missing a hatful of key chances, and Antoine Griezmann looking off the boil.
- Marouane Fellaini will be disappointed with France’s goal, as he lost Samuel Umtiti during Griezmann’s corner. A flashy goal it was not, but will France care?
- The French, though not overly impressive, gave a masterclass in control. They started the slower of the two teams, but they gradually suffocated Belgium and exerted themselves onto the game. As their influence grew, Belgium appeared less and less likely to score a goal, with Romelu Lukaku completely choked out of the game.
- France continue to impress, without really being very impressive at all.
- Giroud has failed to have a single shot on target all tournament – which is incredible – while Griezmann lacks the sparkle he showed two years ago. If France do take the World Cup, French fans will probably remember Kylian Mbappé and Pavard the most.
- The Giroud stat, however, is harsh. The Chelsea striker has been key in France’s attacking play, and while goals have escaped him this tournament, he has improved those around him.
- Some childish behaviour from Mbappé near the end of the game was unpleasant to see, and took the gloss off what was a solid performance from the PSG star.
- It’s such an overheard phrase, but Belgium genuinely have a case to call their current crop a “golden generation.” Sadly for them, however, this glittering group may have just missed their best chance to win a World Cup together. The chance to bring Belgium their first World Cup may now be out of the grasp of veterans Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembélé, Dries Mertens, and Fellaini – all of whom will be nicely in their 30s by Qatar 2022.
- I admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Martinez. I think he’s given a bit of a free pass because he plays adventurous football, but this comes at the cost of solid defensive tactics; even with a top-quality Belgium team featuring names such as Kompany, Vertonghen, and Alderweireld, Martinez appears to show very little defensive nous. This Belgian side should be better than the sloppy marking for Umtiti’s goal yesterday, as well as the two goals conceded against Japan and Tunisia.
- It’s also unacceptable that in Belgium’s biggest ever international game, they started with the forward Chadli in right-back, with Vertonghen – primarily a centre-back, and one who was ripped to shreds by Mbappe yesterday – in left-back.
- But credit has to go to the Spaniard for changing his tactics whenever he saw a problem. Adding Fellaini to the side did add a bit of balance, and allowed De Bruyne to be more influential further forward, while he knew when to replace a surprisingly ineffective Dembélé with Mertens, who looked bright.
- This was a terrible day for Lukaku. The Manchester United striker had precious few chances, and seemed unprepared for every opportunity that did present itself. Lukaku will have another chance in four years’ time, but the no 9 will certainly not be forgetting yesterday’s game for a while – and not for good reasons either.
- And so, France march on. This is Deschamps’ second tournament final in two years – an impressive achievement – and it’s important to note how young this France side is. There could be a very bright future ahead of them, if they can just find that X-factor that continues to elude them.
- Belgium, meanwhile, will need to re-group, with serious questions due to be asked about the country’s defensive production line. No stand-out upcoming defenders plus Roberto Martinez? Oh dear.
Goal of the day
Very apt headline, as there is only one goal to choose from. Samuel Umtiti’s header wasn’t the glitziest chance France had – that honour falls to a blocked Giroud chance after a gorgeous Mbappé backheel – but it’ll be the one that goes in the history books.