France through to World Cup final after edging Belgium in cagey semifinal

France punched a ticket to its third-ever World Cup final after a second-half goal from Samuel Umtiti lifted Les Bleus past a talented Belgium side many had picked as favorites to win the tournament. Following a first half in which Belgium dominated possession but France had the better in chances, Umtiti headed the French into the lead just five minutes after the break.

There were some 50 minutes on the clock when France striker Olivier Giroud had his close-range effort deflected out by Belgium center back Vincent Kompany. Antoine Griezmann took charge of the ensuing corner, lofting it in for Umtiti, who somehow managed to rise above Marouane Fellaini to head a shot past Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois.

A cagey affair

The first 45 minutes of the match could best be described as cagey. France came off the mark hot with Kylian Mbappe immediately raising alarms for Belgium by bursting down the flank and squaring the ball for Griezmann, who was unable to line up a shot.

But Belgium gradually grew into the game, retaining more possession as Eden Hazard began to cause problems with his runs and incisive movements on the left side. It was Hazard who had the best chances in the early going for Belgium, dragging a shot wide in the 15th minute and cutting inside to let loose an effort that was nodded out for a corner by Rafael Varane just a few minutes later.

France’s best first-half effort came in the 39th minute when Benjamin Pavard ran onto a flicked pass from Mbappe and went for the far corner, only to see his effort kept out by Courtois’ outstretched boot.

Umtiti headed France into the lead five minutes after the break, rising above Fellaini to head in Griezmann’s corner for what would prove the match-winner.

Kevin DeBruyne had a golden opportunity to equalize for Belgium just on the hour mark, but the Manchester City playmaker sent his close-range effort bouncing into the arms of France keeper Hugo Lloris.

Axel Witsel also came close to an equalizer, latching on to a loose ball and unleashing a shot that again forced Lloris into action.

Despite Belgium’s formidable firepower, France did an impressive job of limiting the chances of Roberto Martinez’s team. As the match ticked into extra time, it was France that was asking the questions.

Griezmann had a gilt-edged chance to double France’s lead in the 93rd minute, as he drove a low effort toward goal from the edge of the box that was saved by Courtois. Moments later, Corentin Tolisso had another opportunity for France, as he connected with a pass from Pogba on the edge of the box and got off a low shot that was pushed wide by Courtois.

When the final whistle was blown moments later, the score remained 1-0 with Umtiti’s goal seeing France through to the final. Belgium, which looked like the favorite after an impressive win over Brazil, was headed for Saturday’s third-place match.

France continues casual march to the final

Throughout this World Cup, if there’s one criticism we’ve heard directed at France, it’s that it hasn’t looked overly impressive, despite winning five of its six matches and drawing the other. With the array of talent on display in Didier Deschamps’ team, expectations had been high that France would arrive in Russia and treat us to a display of dazzling Francophone soccer, courtesy of decorated stars like Griezmann, Pogba, Giroud, and Mbappe.

But is it possible that that’s the point of this France team? That perhaps there’s such an abundance of talent on the side that it’s essentially been able to beat every team set out in front of it without really needing to get out of third gear?

With a berth in the final against the winner of Wednesday’s other semifinal between Croatia and England awaiting, France is now the firm favorite to lift the Jules Rimet trophy on Sunday. And it’s just possible Les Bleus may pull it off without ever hitting, or even needing to hit, that other gear we all keep expecting to see from Deschamps’ team.

Samuel Umtiti of France scores his sides first goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Semi Final match between Belgium and France at Saint Petersburg Stadium on July 10, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Getty Images)
Samuel Umtiti of France scores his sides first goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Semi Final match between Belgium and France at Saint Petersburg Stadium on July 10, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Getty Images)

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