SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia, July 11 – France held on doggedly against Belgium on Tuesday night in Saint Petersburg to book their spot in the 2018 World Cup final with a 1-0 win.
Didier Deschamp’s Les Bleu side will find out on Wednesday evening who they play in the final after the completion of the England versus Croatia match in Moscow.
In an enthralling encounter between arguably the two best teams at the tournament, a Samuel Umtiti goal just after halftime was enough to keep the French on track for a second World Cup title after the one they won on home soil in 1998.
Belgium started the game full of confidence. And it was France keeper Hugo Loris who had the early work to do as he came off his line quickly to stop Marouane Fellaini from getting a header on goal, before he pulled off a brilliant reflex save to turn his Tottenham club teammate Toby Alderweireld’s 22nd minute shot around the post.
It then took some excellent defending from France centre-back Raphael Varane to get a glancing header on a venomous Eden Hazard strike which resulted in the ball going just over the bar.
However, after a somewhat uncertain start, France began to play themselves back into the game and had half-chances when a superb bit of skill from Paul Pogba nearly unleashed Kylian Mbappe in on goal, before Olivier Giroud headed wide from a Benjamin Pavard cross and then just failed to get on the end of a ball into the box from the ever-dangerous Mbappe.
While Belgium continued to look dangerous on attack, especially through the purposeful Hazard, it was France who had the last clear chance of an entertaining first half when Mbappe played Pavar in on goal, but he was kept out with a fine save via the trailing leg of the Belgian shot-stopper, Thibaut Courtois.
The Red Devils had the first chance after the break as Romelu Lukaku headed well over the bar in the 48th minute.
But it was the French who were to make the breakthrough when Umtiti timed his run to perfection to glance an Antoine Griezmann corner kick into the back of the net.
Sensing blood Le Bleus poured more numbers forward and twice in quick succession produced some wonderful combination play which resulted in sharp chances for Giroud, but both were blocked.
But as the match moved into the final 25 minutes, Belgium wrestled back control with the French finding themselves on the back-foot – proceedings once more balanced on a knife-edge.
Some resolute defending, however, from France saw them keeping out a succession of probing balls into the box, and Belgium’s openings were limited to a Kevin De Bruyne miscued volley, a thunderous drive from Witsel, beaten away by Loris, and a half-chance for Lukaku in the 87th minute.
Eventually, though, the Red Devils ran out of steam and France could have added another goal or two had Griezmann and then Corentin Tolisso been more clinical with clear openings on goal after the Belgian defence had been left exposed in the dying stages of the encounter. (ANA)