Head and shoulders above. A semi-final that didn’t soar in the manner suggested, but only because France so assertively stood up in a way that no other side has matched so far. It was so fitting that the winning goal in this 1-0 came from Samuel Umtiti rising above every Belgian, because it reflected how his side have risen above everyone in the tournament.
They now have the opportunity to win their second World Cup, as they go into their third ever final, but look like they should be anyone’s first choice for victory regardless of who they play. They were that good here, that difficult to break down. They reduced Belgium’s previous confidence and verve to rubble. Roberto Martinez has undeniably made this tournament a success, but they couldn’t even make a dent on France. Didier Deschamps’s side were that good, that solid.
It is not just how they have gradually grown into this tournament, but how they have clearly grown since the pain of Euro 2016.
The conspicuously joyous celebrations on the final whistle hinted at that, and were all the more notable because they were so out of sync with the utterly composed way they had suppressed the game as a contest. It didn’t look like fight the cheers indicated.
They now have the ultimate opportunity to make up for that frustrated lost final against Portugal, by winning football’s greatest prize and proving themselves the greatest international side on the planet.
It would be hard to dispute it on this evidence. It would be hard to open them on this evidence.
France did not just step up, but steel up. An attack as creative and exhilarating as Belgium’s could barely fashion an opening in that defence - let alone a proper chance - after Toby Alderweireld’s 21st-minute shot from a set-piece. Even then, Lloris just illustrated he had elevated his level, too. He offered another fine save to go with that from Martin Caceres’ header in the quarter-final. It was further evidence of just how difficult it was for Belgium. Even when they finally got through France, another obstacle just appeared. Then there was how they increasingly suffocated the spark of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne as the game went on, suffocating the match as a contest, too. They started the match in a manner that suggested it would set fire, only for France to reduce them to a flicker.
This, for all of Deschamps’s flaws, was down to one of his undeniable strengths as a manager. He deserves huge credit for that. He has instilled this side with a solidity way beyond Brazil or any of the other favourites, and it may yet proving the winning of this World Cup. That may not be ironic, but actually be inevitable: a tournament so open could yet be closed out by the one side fully capable of closing out a game.
There’s another element, too. If it is indeed England who France play in the final, they just do not look susceptible to Gareth Southgate’s main weapon: set-pieces. By contrast, it was the winning of the game here, but in how they attacked them and defended them.
Marouane Fellaini became the lightning rod for so much of this, and in more than one way. It was so conspicuous how France had his Manchester United teammate Paul Pogba on him for every defensive set-piece, and how the latter won every such battle.
He wasn’t the only player to do it in that spell of the game. France, evidently, had done their homework.
Just moments after that, the ball came to Giroud just inside the Belgian box, and he attempted to turn and shoot. The Chelsea striker once again proved that bit too cumbersome but it did the job of winning a corner. France then forced the opening goal, and “forced” really is the word to use. Umtiti’s header was all plundering power, as he leapt above Fellaini and fired down into the net.
France had really stepped up, but Belgium had also lost some of their structure and discipline, with Mousa Dembele an increasing liability.
Martinez was at least proactive in that he immediately replaced the midfielder with the pace of Dries Mertens, but the problem was that France could now be as reactive as they wanted… and as it suited them.
It was particularly suiting Mbappe who was revelling in the occasion, decorating it with one delicious double pull-back pass to put Giroud in.
The teenager was naturally catching the eye, but he was aided by so many French players so committed to winning the ball. This was also perhaps one rare game where even N’Golo Kante was outdone in that regard, as the irrepressible Blaise Matuidi was one of the best players on the pitch.
Mbappe had another of his poorer moments as he into a bit of pantomime with Axel Witsel towards the end, and got another booking. It won’t matter because all cards are wiped before the semi-finals, and what actually mattered on the night was that at this stage of the game, the action was all near Belgium’s goal. Martinez’s team couldn’t get near France, and nobody else might be able to either.
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