MOSCOW. First the good news. France did also take the most treacherous path to the final of Euro 2016 and, having seemingly got a hand on the trophy by dismantling Germany in the semi-final, froze horribly when it mattered most against a more limited Portuguese side.
Now the bad news. The top half of the World Cup draw really was best avoided by England and, should they progress against Croatia on Wednesday night to a first final in 52 years, the awaiting challenge will be of a different magnitude to any team they have yet faced.
“Finals have to be won because we have not got over what happened two years ago,” admitted manager Didier Deschamps. “It was so painful that we now really want to taste the victory.”
Such baggage could conceivably inhibit his team but they are significantly better side now and the 1-0 scoreline here against Belgium, who have so far been next best in the tournament, was deceptively comprehensive.
France had quietly demonstrated that it is possible to control a match even without the ball and, with Deschamps now 90 minutes from becoming only the third person to win a World Cup both as a player and manager, they will start Sunday’s final as clear favourites.
Promoted Stories“I am here to write a new page, the most beautiful page – you can’t live in the rear-view mirror,” said the France manager. That might be true, but this was still a stride towards personal vindication for Deschamps who, following such scepticism about his work at the start of the tournament, out-manoeuvred Roberto Martínez more decisively than the Belgium coach would admit.
Martínez repeatedly pointed here to fine margins, and how the teams were separated by only a headed set-piece goal from Samuel Umtiti, but there was much more to it.
First, of course, Kylian Mbappé. Having terrified Belgium with his searing pace, he delivered the sort of sublime second-half moment of skill that is destined to make the cut in thousands of YouTube montages.
To split an opposition defence with a back-heel was one thing. To do it after the sort of drag-back of which Zinedine Zidane himself would have be proud was something else. It was further confirmation of how Mbappé continues to impart the greatest teenage influence on a World Cup since Pele in 1958.
Asked about the possibility of winning the Ballon d’Or, Mbappé also delivered an admirably dismissive response. “I couldn’t care about that,” he said. “I want to win the World Cup. I want to sleep with it.”
With France president Emmanuel Macron in attendance, many other equally important French qualities were evident. Raphaël Varane has matured hugely at centre-back and was a formidable presence in negating Romelu Lukaku.
N’golo Kanté, as ever, was superb in shielding the defence and Paul Pogba, described by Deschamps as “a monster”, was everywhere. In Hugo Lloris, France also have perhaps the best goalkeeper in the tournament.
The only real concern – and it is a significant one – was the sight of midfielder Blaise Matuidi looking disorientated towards the end following a heavy collision with Eden Hazard. He was assessed, allowed to continue, but then substituted. If a concussion is suspected, Fifa’s protocol says that he must not play in Sunday’s final.
It had earlier taken literally five seconds for Belgium to experience what must have been their worst fear. Mbappé collected the ball straight from kick-off and was soon surging past Jan Vertonghen down the wing. The early warning was clear.
Tactical tweaks by Martínez had involved bringing Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele into the midfield and, for 20 minutes, it worked quite well. Twice Hazard had early sights of goals, only for his closest effort to be deflected up onto the crossbar off the top of Varane’s head. Fellaini then brilliantly controlled a corner into the path of Toby Alderweireld, whose shot on the turn forced Lloris into a vital full-length diving save.
The possession statistics were heavily in Belgium’s favour but, with Lloris, Varane and Kanté so imposing, France seldom looked seriously troubled. Right back Benjamin Pavard also started to exploit the space behind Hazard and, after brilliant build-up play by Antoine Griezmann and especially Mbappé, was released one-on-one with Courtois, only for his finish to glance wide off the outside of the Chelsea goalkeeper’s shin.
There was then another excellent chance following a further interchange between Griezmann and Mbappé, only for Giroud to fluff the chance of a first shot of the entire tournament. France were now creating the best chances and their 51st minute lead was absolutely merited. Griezmann, whose understanding with Mbappé is improving by the day, was also testing Belgium with his dead-ball delivery and a simple near-post corner was attacked by Umtiti. Fellaini possessed all the physical advantages but Umtiti had the momentum and, although his glancing header did also brush off the Manchester United midfielder, Courtois was helpless.
France were ahead but did not then sit back and what followed was breathtaking. Having again linked superbly with Griezmann, Mbappé dragged the ball back with the underside of his boot before splitting open Belgium’s defence with a back-heel while facing the opposite goal. Yes, you did read that right. The problem was that Giroud did not quite read and hesitated sufficiently for Nacer Chadli to prevent one of the goals of the tournament.
No matter. Belgium were beaten for the first time in 25 matches and any team with Mbappé, Lloris, Varane, Pogba and Kanté will now take some stopping.