ST PETERSBURG: After France scored, there was a palpable calm among their ranks that it was a lead they could very much protect. Even if the opponents were Belgium, the World Cup’s highest-scoring team. It was, therefore, only apt that in a match that was defined by the bravado of the French defenders, the decisive goal came from one of them.
Centre-back Samuel Umtiti’s thumping headed finish gave France a 1-0 victory against Belgium in an entertaining semi-final of the World Cup which saw the Les Bleus defence perform admirably in the face of a Belgian onslaught.
Following Umtiti’s goal, the Belgians came back fiercely to get the much-sought leveller but couldn’t find a way past a defensive wall built by the Barcelona man alongside Rafael Varane, goalkeeper and France skipper Hugo Lloris and full-backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard seemed impenetrable.
“It was a match where he had the most solidarity, where we worked most defensively,” Varane told reporters after the match. “We were solid, we made a big performance. Belgium have a very good team, they have put a lot of pressure on us by staying high but we were strong and exploited the flaws. We can only be satisfied.”
Varane had scored in France’s 2-0 win over Uruguay in the quarter-finals. Before that, Pavard had netted an absolute screamer against Argentina in the last-16. Umtiti’s goal meant the World Cup in Russia is the first time when three French defenders have found the back of the net in the same tournament.
And in a country where inevitably every team is compared to the class of 1998 that brought France its sole World Cup title, it didn’t take time for the comparisons to pop up. Then, two members of the French defence had scored — Laurent Blanc, the World Cup’s first-ever golden goal against Paraguay in the round-of-16, and Lilian Thuram, who scored a brace in the semi-final victory over Croatia.
That fact was mentioned in the post-match press conference as an omen for the current team but France coach Didier Deschamps immediately shot it down. “Everyone makes his own destiny,” he said. “It’s not destiny if we have defenders scoring at the World Cup. We’re always trying to find comparisons. Instead we should give credit to the players who got the result. They’re the actors. You have to live in your times.
“I never mention my own history,” added Deschamps, who was the captain of the 1998 World Cup-winning team. “Some of the players in the squad weren’t even born. It’s something that belongs to people of that time, not to the young people. We can’t talk about players from 20 years ago. We’re here to write a new page, a beautiful page.”
Varane was asked a similar question in the mixed zone. “No matter who scores, what counts is to deliver a big performance like we did,” he said. “Our attackers are doing a lot of work to help us so it only helps if we can give them a helping hand.”
Indeed they are. Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud formed the first line of the French defence with their high pressing of Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. They also countered Belgium’s midfield with their recovery tackles.
“They left them to pass backwards, to defenders who have low technical quality,” said Deschamps. “The idea was to not give them space because they are a team that can be like lightning rods. They have very rapid movements.”
The French goal made things even better. Now, with their assured defence, they could pick Belgium apart on the counterattack. They had chances but Umtiti’s goal it was that remained the difference, the defender ran onto Griezmann’s corner before out-jumping the much taller Marouane Fellaini to power home past Thibaut Courtois.
“I have had the advice from many, including the coach that it’s really not about being tall,” he told reporters. “It’s the determination, the will to score, the desire to get in there and that’s why I was able to beat Fellaini.”
Griezmann said it was something they had worked on in training. “The goal was rehearsed,” he said. “I put it there and Samuel got in there so you can say it worked out well. It also came at the key moment.”
Just like Pavard and Varane before, Umtiti’s goal had the perfect timing. It’s a goal that takes France within one victory of becoming world champions again.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2018