France vs Belgium: Kylian Mbappe the World Cup's new king, what is Axel Witsel, and set-pieces strike again

Step into the light, Kylian Mbappe. He didn’t score here and yet the fact he was still the best player on the night showed just how good he has become

Lawrence Ostlere
Tuesday 10 July 2018 21:12 BST
France World Cup profile

France earned their place in the World Cup final with a 1-0 over their neighbours Belgium on an edgy night in St Petersburg.

Samuel Umtiti’s glancing header early in the second half put the French ahead and from there Didier Deschamps’ team dug in to deny Belgium any clear-cut opportunities.

France will play England or Croatia in Moscow on Sunday for the right to be crowned World Champions. Here are five things we learned:

Mbappe, football’s refreshing change

Football fans’ obsession with individual awards in what is, lest we forget, a team sport, is an abomination for which we should all feel deeply ashamed. But better the devil you know, so let’s embrace it for a moment.

The odds for the Golden Ball show a bunch of fresh faces, with Kylian Mbappe now leading the charge. When Portugal and then Argentina exited the tournament it felt like a changing of the guard, and today’s announcement that Cristiano Ronaldo has left Real Madrid only added to the feeling that there is a black hole where superstars used to shine.

France’s Kylian Mbappe runs with the ball (AP)

Step into the light, Kylian Mbappe. He didn’t score here and yet the fact he was still the best player on the night showed just how good he has become. This was arguably just as impressive as his performance against Argentina, given the stakes and the stage and the opposition in front of him, who didn’t let him use their half as his personal playground.

His flick to Olivier Giroud just before the hour was sublime, an outrageous show of confidence from a teenager in a World Cup semi-final, and he left this game with the sense that there is something special still to come.

Another game, another telling set-piece

This has been a brilliantly entertaining World Cup, one of the best in most of our living memories, and yet it is not unfair to say it has lacked the volume of spectacular goals in years gone by. Instead there have been an unprecedented numbers of own goals, penalties and goals by set-pieces. Umtiti’s was another, rising to glance Antoine Griezmann’s in-swinger past Thibaut Courtois, yet another tick in the column for hard work on the training pitch.

Perhaps that goes against our natural instinct that football’s enjoyment should come from its moments of inspiration and innovation, like a volley which unravels from the corner of your eye or a pass which dissects a perfectly assembled defence. Perhaps this tournament has proved that goals, any goals, and the drama and the narrative they write can be more entertaining and absorbing than the sheer one-off pleasure of a wonder strike.

What is Axel Witsel?

In Swedish the word axel means ‘shoulder’. The shoulder is a useful joint, a classic ball-and-socket outfit that quietly gets on with its unremarkable job without a fuss. You would miss your shoulder if it wasn’t there, undoubtedly, but you would always have another one, and this came to mind when Roberto Martinez sent for Dries Mertens in search of a goal, and opted to leave both Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini on the field.

Belgium's midfielder Axel Witsel (AFP/Getty Images)

Off came Mousa Dembele, a man who hasn’t been dispossessed since 2007, and on stayed Witsel, a man who is reliable, unfussy, but whose star qualities are hard to ascertain. Witsel rarely puts a foot wrong, an admirable trait in a defensive midfield player, and yet there was the lingering feeling that in the final 20 minutes in St Petersburg, as Belgium searched for an equaliser to keep their World Cup hopes alive, he was not the midfielder they required.

Lukaku vs Giroud

Both Romelu Lukaku and Olivier Giroud have had – and continue to have – their detractors. Their style is not too dissimilar; two physical focal points who don’t get nearly enough credit for their technical quality, with an ability to bring team-mates into play, sniff out chances in the penalty area and conjure the occasional spectacular goal from dust.

This seemed like an apt moment to compare the two. Both had chances they might have taken, reacting a little too slowly, or taking one touch too many, or one touch too badly. Both looked, on the surface at least, like they weren’t always on the same wavelength as their chief co-conspirators, Mbappe and Eden Hazard. And in the end there was little to separate the pair from a nearly performance – except that one will get the chance to play in a World Cup final, and one will not.

England, or Croatia, have nothing to fear

OK, so it would probably wise for the winner of Wednesday’s semi-final to have a healthy dread of a Mbappe, a man who doesn’t so much run from one spot to another as teleport across the pitch. But France are not some all-conquering, unplayable side. They will be the favourites, but Belgium showed they are vulnerable, and distinctly beatable.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in