THE first semi-final of this World Cup in Russia had all the ingredients of being an enthralling, edge-of-the-seat affair. It also had the perfect setting for a game of that magnitude.
The Krestovsky Stadium in Russia’s erstwhile capital is an imposing venue. From the outside it looks like a spaceship that has settled upon the shores of the Gulf of Finland. And thankfully it delivered on the hype even if there was only one goal in a thrilling, open game, littered with chances.
That solitary goal belonged to France’s Samuel Umtiti. His bullet header means Belgium’s golden generation of players will have to wait longer to fulfill their promise. France’s 1-0 victory, meanwhile, sends them to a first World Cup final since 2006. This generation of French players now has a chance to emulate their compatriots from 1998 and bring home a second world title to their country.
Coach Didier Deschamps now stands one win away from joining an elite group of men who have won the World Cup both as a player and a coach. England or Croatia will stand in his and France’s way at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on July 15.
It seemed early on that Deschamps’ win-at-all-costs mentality would ruin the spectacle. France had been set up to play on the counterattack, but once they settled down, it was a game which could’ve been a goal-fest.
In a cagey start from France, Belgians Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard looked lively and menacing, asking questions with a flurry of corners. It was on one of those corners that Belgium almost scored, but Hugo Lloris made a brilliant reaction save when Toby Alderweireld shot on the turn through a crowd of bodies.
It was that save which probably sparked France into action. Kylian Mbappe got past the Belgian defence a couple of times. On one of those occasions, Olivier Giroud shot horribly wide, falling over as he tried to get to the end of his cutback. The other time, Benjamin Pavard drew a superb save from Thibaut Courtois, who stuck out a leg to a shot that was destined for the far post.
Belgium, though, could’ve taken the lead into the second-half but Romelu Lukaku couldn’t react quickly enough to a cross curled in from Kevin De Bruyne. It was to prove costly. Umtiti’s goal came just six minutes after the restart. The defender ran in to meet Antoine Griezmann’s cross, outjumping Marouane Fellaini to power in a header that gave Courtois no chance.
It was the goal that seemed to liberate France. Mbappe led some menacing, superb forays into the Belgian box, showing both speed and skill in one move that carved open the opposition defence with clinical precision.
The Belgians then threw the kitchen sink at France in search of the leveler, but France defended stoutly. Belgium pinged in crosses and shots from every angle but the French wall was too high for them to breach. Their wait for a maiden international title continues.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2018