St Petersburg: “It was a tight game. There weren’t many big moments... The difference between defeat and winning was just one dead ball situation," said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez as he could not hide his disappointment from failing to take Belgium to their first ever World Cup final.
A highly tactical battle between two neighbours - France and Belgium, was settled with a set-piece situation as France reached the World Cup final after 2006, securing a 1-0 win at the St Petersburg Stadium here on Tuesday night.
Samuel Umtiti flicked on a near-post header from a corner by Antoine Griezmann in the 51st minute to take France to Moscow where they will play the final on Sunday evening.
Didier Deschamps' team would feel vindicated that it was a set-piece header that took them to the final of the World Cup, as it was a header by Mats Hummels of eventual champions Germany in 2014 World Cup that had ended their campaign. Four years later, Deschamps, 49, is one step closer to join the elite club of Mario Zagallo of Brazil and Franz Beckenbauer of Germany to lift the coveted World Cup Trophy both as a player and a manager.
There can be no argument about the fact that Belgium and France are two of the most talented sides in World football at the moment with an abundance of talent that has to warm the bench just because there is someone equally good out in the middle. Martinez, 44, had shown his tactical acumen in a game against Brazil to script one of the most famous wins for the Red Devils.
Although the manager refused to blame any individual, in the hindsight, his plan to field Moussa Dembele in midfield rather than Yannick Carrasco seemed to have backfired as Dembele was outrun by Paul Pogba in their midfield battle. De Bruyne, who played as a false nine against Brazil with Romelu Lukaku out on right and Eden Hazard on left, with a devastating effect, was slotted back in the centre of the park with Lukaku leading the line.
Being overrun in the midfield, Hazard kept dropping deeper and deeper to receive the ball, trying to link up with De Bruyne, while Marouane Fellaini kept drifting wide, almost playing like a winger, again not his natural position, to stretch the game. The ploy seemed to work early in the game as Belgians had the lion share of the possession with opposition sitting deep.
Although France conceded the possession, the tactics were spot on by Deschamps as Griezmann, who usually plays out on the left as part of front three, played more centrally, with France choosing to hit Belgium on the counter. It was a calculated risk that paid off as allowing Hazard and De Bruyne can cost dearly, but France looked far more lethal on the counter as within a matter of three to four passes they were having a shot at Thibaut Courtois' goal.
Flicks and tricks
On an evening where earlier in the day Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus from Real Madrid, Kylian Mbappe showcased his talent once again to the world, proving why Paris Saint-Germain are willing to pay 180 million euros for him this transfer window. Although amidst the rumours that Mbappe might just be one of the options to replace Ronaldo at Real Madrid, the 19-year-old player just went out there and enjoyed his football.
It did not really matter for the teenager whether he was playing a 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-final, he played as if he was playing FIFA on a PlayStation, pulling out tricks one after another, with the same ease as Zinedine Zidane. Telstar, glued to his feet, obeyed to every touch by the youngster, who touched the ball more than 50 times during the duration of the game. His daft backheel flick to put Olivier Giroud through on Belgium goal, earned him a warm applause and cries of 'Oooh' from the delighted crowd. Later in the game, he showed that he has picked up one or two other tricks as well, as he earned himself a booking for time-wasting.
Another simple flick
At times, the semi-final wasn't as action packed with challenges flying around, tactical fouls halting the play as both teams stuck to their game plans, trying to unlock the opposition with a moment of magic which never appeared. It was a dead ball situation that settled the score.
Six minutes into the second-half, France earned themselves a corner with French supporters cheering them on from behind the post. Greizmann put in a delivery at the near post where Barcelona defender Umtiti got better of his marker Fellaini, jumped ahead of him to put a header into the back of the net leaving Courtois no chance to stop the ball.
As the clock ticked down, France, sensing that they are getting even closer to reaching the final in Moscow, resorted to a simple plan of running the clock down and executed it to the perfection, frustrating the Red Devils. Despite having 60 per cent of the ball, Belgium had nine attempts, compared to 19 attempts by their neighbours.
At the end of the day, a great tactical battle between France and Belgium was settled by Umtiti's header from a corner, taking Les Bleus to Moscow and a step closer to being crowned the World Champions.
Belgium meanwhile will take the field again in St Petersburg on the eve of the final for the third-place match, thinking what France will experience, could have been their night.