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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

France reach World Cup final as Samuel Umtiti's goal sinks Belgium

Second half goal from Barcelona defender enough for French to reach third World Cup final in 20 years

France players celebrate Samuel Umtiti's goal. Getty Images
France players celebrate Samuel Umtiti's goal. Getty Images

France, then, are the World Cup’s first finalists.

They battled past Belgium in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, when Samuel Umtiti scored and Kylian Mbappe shone, a lively last-four encounter with a heavy Premier League presence settled by a solitary goal and oodles of effort.

At the beginning, it had all felt, well, a little flat. Smatterings of French and small amounts of Belgians were swallowed by what seemed a largely neutral crowd.

But soon the match settled into its rhythm, the stakes surged and in the end France booked a spot in the showpiece for the third time in their history. England or Croatia stand between them and a second world title.

On the surface, they owe the opportunity to Umtiti’s second-half header. In the 51st minute, the Barcelona centre-back met Antoine Griezmann’s whipped corner at Belgium’s near post, fractions before marker Marouanne Fellaini, and glanced his header past Hugo Lloris.

Didier Deschamps led the charge from the French bench. Emmanuel Macron, up in the seats reserved for presidents and the like, tried best to keep his cool, partaking in a little Celebration Chic.

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In contrast, the pocket of France fans behind the goal bounced and broke into “Allez Les Bleus”.

In all, France’s victory was buttressed by a sturdy defence and N’Golo Kante’s three lungs. The 1998 champions were right to celebrate wildly once the final whistle went, since they appear to be comfortably the best of the three teams that remain.

For their part, Belgium’s second semi-final went the same way as their first, some 32 years previously. They just came up short. They will look back on it with real regret.

In the first-half, they more than matched France, the opening 45 minutes distilled to two great saves. First, Lloris flung himself towards Toby Alderweireld’s curled effort and tipped it around the post. The ball was heading just inside it.

Alderweireld, Lloris’ Tottenhman Hotspur teammate - one of 13 Premier League players who started - was already heading to celebrate.

Yet anything Lloris can do, Thibaut Courtois can too, if not better then just as well. Not long before half-time, Mbappe played in Benjamin Pavard with a cute slide-pass, but the right-back’s shot was sent wide by a flick of Courtois’ right boot.

France had been threatening just beforehand, although Griezmann and Olivier Giroud failed to find the target a couple of times each.

At the other end, Eden Hazard was clearly in the mood, if his shooting didn’t quite match, while Romelu Lukaku plainly wasn’t.

In one instance, Hazard left Pavard sprawled on the turf and then both he and Paul Pogba trailing in his wake.

Six minutes into the second-half, France had their foot on Belgium’s throat. Umtiti beat to the ball Fellaini and nodded home.

For a brief spell thereafter, Mbappe displayed why almost everyone believes he is the game’s next proper superstar, which was kind of fitting given Cristiano Ronaldo had earlier stolen headlines by swapping Real Madrid for Juventus.

At one point, Mbappe improvised some sort of back-heel that broke Belgium’s backline and played in Giroud. In another, he tore down the right flank, showcasing that close-to-superhuman speed.

Belgium, though, hung in there. Fellaini powered wide a header. Axel Witsel tested Lloris from range. By that time, Roberto Martinez had thrown on Dries Mertens, and Yannick Carrasco soon joined the fray as well, as his side attempted to scramble level.

On 88 minutes, Lukaku narrowly missed Kevin De Bruyne’s deliciously floated pass.

France were a danger late on on the break, nearly securing the victory through substitute Corentin Tolisso’s injury-time shot.

But it wasn’t needed. France forged forward. The World Cup’s first finalists can look ahead to Sunday’s showpiece with dreams of conquering the lot.