France beat Belgium’s Golden generation to reach the 2018 World Cup Final. Dave Bowler gives a blow by blow account
World Cup 2018 Diary – France Reach Final by Beating Belgium 1-0
For all the extravagant individual talent on display at World Cup 2018, this has been the tournament of the set piece, notably the corner, balls whipped into the box, meeting the head of a positive runner to put the ball away. There’s no shame in bring good at set pieces. Working on those is every bit as valid as working in defensive shape, team organisation, the counter-attack.
France have clearly done a bit of training ground work on corners and the like for that ultimately proved the difference between them and Belgium. While Chadli pumped in a string of absolute duffers that either hit the first man or sailed over everyone, Griezmann picked out a pearl early in the second half, inviting a surging run to the near list from Umtiti and his glancing header grazed Fellaini on its way past Courtois to make the telling difference between the two sides in a game which, if anything, Belgium shaded.
Ultimately, the Belgians were punished for winning their group, that crucial bit of spark taken from them in the effort required to put Brazil away in the previous round. For all their possession, they could not find that same zip again and, against a French side that is perhaps the most defensively disciplined in the competition, that was fatal.
Their organisation is first class, Varane utterly outstanding in central defence, Lloris again making one absolutely outstanding save when the scores were level to claw away an Alderweireld effort. But their discipline extends well beyond the back four because their midfield is outstanding.
Kante and Matuidi are simply inexhaustible, perpetual motion, snuffing danger out, prompting attacks but in this World Cup, Pogba has reached the kind of maturity that has been expected of him for a while now, keeping it simple, doing his job, not grandstanding, yet capable of playing a killer pass to destroy the opposition.
When you have the chance to hit balls into Giroud, release the pace of Mbappe or build up through Griezmann, you have potent attacking options, but no more than Belgium had at their disposal. But for Hazard, the largely misfiring De Bruyne and Lukaku, not given a sniff of an opening, this was a night they will want to forget, so well marshalled were they by the French team.
Try as they might, and they had enough of the ball, Belgium could not really open up a French rearguard that, the brief madness of the Argentina game aside, has looked impregnable. They haven’t quite set the world alight, they’ve quietly picked their way through the competition’s wreckage and on into the final, but they’ve improved game on game and this win over Belgium, perhaps a better side in many respects, was something of a statement
They have grown into the tournament game after game and now have real authority going into Sunday’s final. To defeat Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium on the way, to do it with no real alarms save that briefest of scares against Argentina, to do it without really extending themselves is the hallmark of a very good side coming to the boil at precisely the right moment.
They must guard against complacency for England or Croatia have nothing like the quality of the teams they’ve beaten, but if they do that, and Matuidi shakes off that late knock to take his place in the side, they are red hit favourites now, whoever their opponent.
For Belgium, it’s a case of what might have been. Roberto Martinez will surely have a moment of regret over not throwing that last group game with England in order to finish second for had he done so, the odds are that Belgium would have been meeting France on Sunday rather than tonight. They have contributed richly to the competition, enthralling against Japan and Brazil, but those two games sapped too much energy, energy they needed to advance. No disgrace in losing to France, but for Belgium’s golden generation, there could have been so much more.