It was the clash of the vibrant new looks Les Bleus and the golden generation of Belgian football. Expectations were riding high for both sides, both sides aiming for the much coveted spot in the FIFA 2018 World Cup finals. St. Petersburg arena was filled with shades of red and blue, a buzz only a semi final of the World Cup can create.
The French started the match at a blistering pace with 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe sprinting down the right flank with the ball giving everyone a glimpse of the damage his speed is capable of. From then onwards the Belgians began a spell of dominance, moving the ball around well and keeping possession. Eden Hazard looked to be a player out to prove his worth with numerous dazzling runs to the edge of the French box. The French seemed slightly ruffled but did look dangerous every time they got the ball. Pogba nearly put Mbappe through with a lovely quick counter attack through the midfield.
The first real chance for Belgium comes from a left-footed effort from Toby Alderweireld forcing a brilliant save from Hugo Lloris. Belgium respond positively, again via a threat from Hazard, but it is dealt with well by Raphael Varane. Belgium doing all the pressing but France, to their credit are soaking up the pressure well. The game seems to be one with waves of attacks from both sides. A short spell for France sees an awkward header attempt by Olivier Giroud go wide and a shot by Antoine Greizmann sail well over the bar. Approaching halftime, both teams on the attack, Mbappe finding Pavard who has a shot but his effort is turned away for a corner by goalkeeper Courtois.
A great first 45-minutes – Belgians having a greater share of possession but France dominating the last 10 minutes before the break.
The second half started in a lively fashion for both teams. A great cross by Chadli to Lukaku seeing him head over the bar. The deadlock was finally broken in the 50th minute with a corner by Greizmann being met by Umtiti who, beating Fellaini, glanced the ball into the net at the near post. France looked slightly more at ease after that goal, still attacking every chance they got. A dazzling display of skill by Mbappe had the world hold their breath as his pirouetting drag back found Giroud right in front of goal, only to be denied by a block by Dembele.
A substitution saw the introduction of Dries Mertens, who immediately added to Belgian threat from the right wing with some whipping crosses, none however, being met with to any impact. Belgium presses on, but the French defence seems impermeable. A thunderous effort from Axel Witsel saved yet again by Hugo Lloris. With time running out, Belgium looked desperate for the equaliser while France seemed content to sit back and frustrate them. A few late yellow cards and saves from Courtois denies France from extending their lead. Didier Deschamps’s France go through to the finals of the World Cup after ending a talented Belgium team’s 24-match unbeaten run. They now await to play the winner of the second semi final between England and Croatia in the Final on Sunday.
(Jyoti Ann Burrett is a former National Women’s Football player)