France will face England or Croatia in the World Cup final after edging European rivals Belgium in a tightly contested semi-final in St Petersburg.
Samuel Umtiti’s 51st-minute header was enough to give the 1998 champions the win and a first appearance in a World Cup final since 2006.
The result will have French fans dreaming of that historic night in Paris 20 years ago, when the Zinedine Zidane-inspired Les Bleus romped to a 3-0 win over Brazil. Manager Didier Deschamps, who captained that side as a holding midfielder, will now look to emulate Brazilian Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer by winning the competition as both a player and manager.
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The French adopted a conservative approach, defending in numbers from the onset and putting their usual flair away in the locker. They relied instead on the searing pace of teenage hotshot Kylian Mbappe and once they had gone ahead through Barcelona defender Umtiti they rarely looked like conceding to a side that had conquered Brazil in the quarter-final. French keeper Hugo Lloris did have to be at his best to stop Axel Witsel’s long-range missile, but the Belgians were kept at bay without too many problems.
The French tactics were slated by Belgian shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois, who called the result a “shame for football” in bitter post-match comments.
“It was a frustrating match. France didn’t play at all, they defended with 11 players within 40m of their goal,” the Chelsea goalkeeper told Belgian TV channel RTBF.
“They played on the counter-attack with [Kylian] Mbappe, who is very quick. That’s their right. They know when an opponent plays very deep, that’s where we have problems.
“The frustration is there because we didn’t lose to a team who are better than us, we lost to a team who play nothing, just defend.”
It is quite naïve to expect anything less from opponents in a World Cup semi-final. You do what you have to do to win and get that shot at glory and it’s something Courtois will know all too well, having adopted the same defensive strategy on many occasions at Stamford Bridge, particularly during Jose Mourinho’s reign.
Boasting a “golden generation” of footballers including Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, Belgium will have to settle for a shot at third spot in the playoff on Saturday after seeing their 24-game unbeaten run come to an end.
For France, the memories of that memorable night in Paris will have come flooding back, with World Cup glory beckoning once more.