France will play in the 2018 FIFA World Cup final after a tense 1-0 win over Belgium in St. Petersburg.
The Belgians dominated the first half with a flurry of good chances, but a strong French defensive display held them out.
In the second half, a lovely header from Samuel Umtiti proved to be the winner as England or Croatia found out their possible World Cup final opponents.
One of the biggest talking points pre-match was how Belgium would deal with the suspension of their in-form full-back Thomas Meunier. When the team-sheets came in, many were surprised as Roberto Martinez had chosen Nacer Chadli to fill as a right-back with Moussa Dembele coming into the midfield. For France, the pressure was on Olivier Giroud up front as the striker was yet to hit the target with a shot in the tournament.
On the day that Cristiano Ronaldo was on his way to Juventus, attentions turned to two men who could replace him at Real Madrid in Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappe. It was the Chelsea winger who started the game better and France looked petrified every time he got the ball.
The Belgian twice skipped past Benjamin Pavard in the opening twenty minutes, but on each occasion, he failed to force Hugo Lloris into a save. His first shot dragged well wide across the goal, but the second was superbly flicked over his own crossbar by a brave header from Raphael Varane.
The Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper was called into action midway through the first half and he did brilliantly to deny a fellow Spurs player. Toby Alderweireld was first to pounce on a loose ball from a corner, following a poor header by Giroud, but his spinning shot was tipped around the post in style by the Premier League shot-stopper.
With Belgium dominating, the French knew they had to force their opponents back and start playing their own football. They needed to get Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann into the game more and it was the Atletico Madrid man who wasted a great chance as he flung the ball well over from range. Minutes later, Mbappe slipped in a great pass for the on-rushing Pavard but Thibaut Courtois stretched out a long leg to clip the shot wide with a terrific save.
It really was a fascinating first half of football, but you got the feeling it would only get better with a goal to open things up. The start of the second half brought that moment as the French fans were left celebrating.
Didier Deschamps’ side have shown their capabilities from set-pieces in the tournament, including a goal from a corner in the quarter-final victory over Uruguay, and it was another corner that led to the goal. Griezmann delivered towards the near post and Umtiti showed more desire to beat Marouane Fellaini to the ball and nod past Courtois for the breakthrough.
The goal was expected to be the start of something special, but in truth, the game got even tighter. France looked more confident with their lead and for the first time in the match, the Belgians looked nervous as their World Cup final dream looked to be slipping away.
Axel Witzel forced Lloris into a good save with a peach of a strike from range, but the French defended well and held on for their second straight international tournament after their Euro 2016 disappointment.