The so-called Belgian golden generation were brought right back down to earth by a clinical France as a solo Samuel Umtiti goal took Les Blues to the 2018 Fifa World Cup final, halting the Red Devils’ 24-match unbeaten run in the process in Saint Petersburg, Russia Tuesday.
With the win, France manager Didier Deschamps went one step closer to emulating Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer, who both lifted the World Cup as a player and a manager.
In contrast, Belgium’s French assistant coach Thierry Henry cut a frustrated picture at the dugout but did not forget to congratulate his countrymen at the end.
Belgian manager Roberto Martinez should be proud of his boys but he knows deep inside that they went desperately close to reaching their first ever final in the greatest show on earth.
Both the managers were forced to change their starting XI as Deschamps got back Blaise Matuidi from suspension while Martinez included Tottenham Hotspur’s Mousa Dembele in place of the suspended Thomas Meunier.
France showed their main strength – pace – right from the word go. Kylian Mbappe got free right at the centre of the field and ran across the half before sending a nice looking pass to Antoine Griezmann, who had scored seven goals in his last six knockout stage matches in major tournaments for France.
This time however, the Atletico Madrid forward failed to control inside the box, thus missing out on the early opportunity.
In the sixth minute, it was Belgium’s turn to threaten the France terrain. Belgian captain Eden Hazard dangerously danced into the French box but his low cross from the left side was cleared by the Les Blues backline.
Seven minutes later, Mbappe missed a golden opportunity to break the deadlock. Following a counter attack, Mbappe agonisingly missed a teasing through ball from Paul Pogba as an incoming Thibaut Courtois came off his line and collected it.
The Red Devils on the other hand were solid in midfield and in the 16th minute, Kevin de Bruyne flicked one to Hazard on the left edge of the box. But the Chelsea man’s effort went just wide of the far post.
Minutes later, Raphael Varane cleared two dangerous balls inside the box from Hazard and De Bruyne to frustrate the Belgians.
Belgium went close to scoring once again in the 22nd minute but Toby Alderweireld fluffed his opportunity, thanks to Hugo Lloris. Another De Bruyne cross was soon cleared by Umtiti six minutes later.
Olivier Giroud got a couple of chances, thanks to some brilliant play by Mbappe, but the former failed to capitalise. First, his header went over the bar, and later, he failed to connect properly in the 34th minute.
Three minutes later, Griezmann sprinted all the way from his half but failed to connect properly as his poor shot went wide of Courtois. Mbappe then brilliantly set up Benjamin Pavard but the latter’s shot was brilliantly saved by Courtois.
Les Blues earned a free-kick on the right edge of the box but Griezmann failed to hit over the wall.
In the additional one minute of the first half, Lukaku almost scored for Belgium after another inviting cross from De Bruyne but the Manchester United striker failed to react well and utilise the opportunity.
After resumption, Mbappe once again showed his midas touch as his deft back-heel found Giroud inside the box in the 57th minute but Courtois came off his line in time to Belgium’s rescue.
Belgium got a wonderful opportunity through De Bruyne four minutes later but the Manchester City playmaker failed to connect properly with his first-time attempt before a Marouane Fellaini header of a whooping cross from Dries Mertens failed to disturb Lloris on the post.
Varane was everywhere in the French defence and in the 81st minute he brilliantly tackled Hazard but Alex Witsel with the following ball fired the trigger. Lloris however, was at his mesmerising best as he punched the ball away to safety.
During the dying moments of the match, Belgium won a free-kick outside the box. The delivery from Hazard created chaos inside the French box but failed to cause any damage. Instantly, a decisive De Bruyne delivery created an opportunity for Lukaku, who was confused as to what he would do. While thinking about heading or striking the ball with his feet, the opportunity went ashtray.
In the second half injury time, Griezmann and substitute Corentin Tolisso went close to doubling the scoreline only to be denied by an otherwise magnificent Courtois.