ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — They were only glimpses, fleeting and flickering and ultimately insignificant, but they were so tantalizing that they were impossible to miss.
Kylian Mbappé, inside the first 10 seconds, burning Belgium’s Jan Vertonghen away, an express train speeding past a bewildered commuter. Paul Pogba striding forward, Antoine Griezmann dancing through challenges. Mbappé again, splitting Belgium’s defense in two with a blink-of-the-eye pirouetting drag-back.
They were moments to drop the jaw and draw the breath, visions of the heights this French generation — now one win away from being crowned champion of the world — might yet scale, images of what this team of all the talents could, and perhaps should, be.
But it was not those flashes of neon brilliance that took France past Belgium in a 1-0 win that sent thousands out to celebrate on the Champs-Élysées. France is not in its third World Cup final in 20 years because of what this team threatens to be, or might become.
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It is there, instead, because of what it does in the long stretches between flashes; it is there not because it shines so brightly but because it dulls whatever it faces; it is there because of what it is: a team that always has much, much more than enough, but only ever does enough, and never any more.
France has, somehow, reached the cusp of greatness without ever really having given the impression it has stretched itself, or reached its full potential. It sleepwalked through its group, with single-goal victories against Australia and Peru, and a mind-numbing goalless draw with Denmark.
In the round of 16, against an Argentina side mired in chaos and permanently on the verge of a meltdown, it roused itself for a few minutes, scored three quick-fire goals, then sank back into itself, eventually winning — again — by just one goal.
It was only in the quarterfinal, against Uruguay, that it finally broke that trend of squeaking by, but only thanks a header off a set piece and an egregious error from Fernando Muslera, the Uruguayan goalkeeper. France reached St. Petersburg, and the semifinal, hardly having broken a sweat.
It was greeted there by Belgium, whose own golden generation was supposed to provide a significantly more exacting test, to force the French out of their shells, to demand that Manager Didier Deschamps’s richly gifted players finally live up to their lofty reputations. For 50 minutes, the Belgians threatened to do just that, to draw this team into the open field. And then Samuel Umtiti scored — slipping his marker to meet Griezmann’s corner — and France drew back once more, content to contain and control.
Deschamps’s players let Belgium burn itself out, deprived it first of hope, and then of life, all the while not expending a drop of energy more than was strictly necessary.
Belgium’s Eden Hazard, in particular, had started the game as a ball of energy, twisting and turning and writhing his way past Benjamin Pavard, France’s right back; Hazard had the look of a player very conscious of the fact that this was his chance to stake a claim for greatness.
By the end, he looked adrift. He had long since wandered into central midfield, craving some sort of space, some sort of peace, only to find neither. His sparkle had gone, and so had his spark.
It was not — as might be expected, in the era of counter-pressing, that frenzied style of harrying and harassing that is so en vogue in European club soccer — because the French had pummeled him and his team into submission, barely allowing a moment’s rest, but because they had done the opposite: They waited as Belgium wandered into their sleeper-hold, and then simply refused to let go.
That has been France’s unexpected forte in this tournament: its defensive strength, its imperturbability, the ease with which it blunts an attack. Only Argentina has scored against the French from open play. They are so assured in defense that none of those single-goal victories felt at all close, or tense; they all seemed to be over long before the final whistle. So, too, here: When the game ended, the explosion of joy from the French players, and their small squadron of fans, felt somehow out of place, out of context, with the torpor that had descended.
France has achieved this not, as the teams of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino seek to do, by seeking to coil itself around its prey, squeezing the breath from its opponents. Its approach resembles that of a crocodile, rather than a snake: It waits, pounces, and then sinks back beneath the surface, happy to wait again.
Given the personnel at his disposal, it is hard not to feel that Deschamps is forcing his players to do something that does not come naturally to them. This is a squad that could — should — be tearing through opponents; with its abilities, courage should not feel like a risk. There is a lingering feeling that France is not making the most of his resources, a temptation to wonder what this team might achieve, what it might become, with a less conservative, less cautious manager.
It is easy to speculate, too, that France’s passivity, that lack of ambition, might eventually prove its undoing, that in the final it will need to raise its game and will ultimately be unable — or unwilling — to do so.
There is, though, a counter argument that is no less compelling. France has met every challenge and passed them with ease. Lionel Messi could not disrupt its serenity; nor could Luis Suárez; now Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku have failed, too.
True, there has been no flawless performance, no marquee display to rival Croatia’s win against Argentina or even Belgium’s quarterfinal victory against Brazil; true, there has been a reliance on goals from set pieces; true, France has only ever edged through, rather than sweeping past clearly inferior opponents. It has always had enough, and done enough, but never more.
But those moments, those glimpses of what lies beneath, should not be forgotten. They are dangerous precisely because they hint at what might be, at what France has in reserve, should it be needed. This is a team that has another gear, another level that it can find as and when it is required.
Deschamps and his players are in the World Cup final because of what they are: a team designed to draw the sting, to suck the air from a game, to deprive the fire of oxygen. It is hard to believe they will not win it, though, because of what they might be: the team with the sting, with the air, with the fire. France, for the last month, has done what is required. It will be confident it can do so, one last time.
Here’s how France beat Belgium, from Victor Mather and Kevin Draper in New York and Andrew Das in St. Petersburg:
That’s it! France has advanced to the World Cup final with a 1-0 victory over Belgium.
The goal was scored by Samuel Umtiti, who dropped his marker Toby Alderweireld, outjumped the very tall Marouane Fellaini and headed home an Antoine Griezmann corner. The ball was in the net before Belgium keeper Thiebaut Courtois could do anything about it.
France will play the winner of the other semifinal on Wednesday, England or Croatia.
Vertonghem bumps into Mbappe, who sells it with a leap and a fall. The replay does not appear to show much contact. Still, a yellow for Vertonghen.
France almost put the game away! They dispossessed Belgium in their own half and freed Griezmann for a wide-open shot, but Courtois quickly got down to his right to corral the shot.
Mbappe, rather than giving the ball to Belgium for a throw-in, dribbles it away for a moment, drawing the ire of Belgium and some shoves. The ref hits him up with a yellow.
Andrew Das: French time-wasting is the new diving.
Another striker on for Belgium: Batshuayi for Chadli. Another head to lob balls at. But first they have to get it back from France.
Belgium will have 6 minutes of stoppage time to find an equalizer.
De Bruyne lobs from far out, and Lukaku is there unmarked. But he comes a few inches short of getting his head to it.
Kanté caught there for a professional foul — he gets a yellow. But the bigger problem is he’s given De Bruyne a shooting-range free kick in the 88th minute. That’s a kind of regrettable error if it goes wrong.
Matuidi cannot continue after that collision. He’s out and France brings in Tolisso.
Andrew Das: With Matuidi down again, Belgium is furious with the referee Cunha for not speeding this along. The French are A1 at gamesmanship though, and they know exactly what they’re doing here.
France has really locked this down nicely since the goal, which initially gave them a bit of life. But as we’ve entered the final minutes they’re really focusing on the job at hand: sucking the life out of the game, not giving Belgium a sniff of an opening, and getting out of here at 1-0.
France makes their first substitution, bringing Steven N’Zonzi in for Olivier Giroud.
Kevin Draper: France is doing a very effective job killing this game off. Belgium is attacking desperately — perhaps too desperately, sometimes taking turns taking on three men — but aren’t actually generating anything dangerous.
Hazard is definitely down for real this time after a hard collision with Matuidi on a 50/50 ball. It wasn’t so much a challenge as a flying body block by Hazard, though. Rough, rough play there.
Witsel of Belgium pounces on a loose ball and drives in a shot from distance. Lloris makes a diving punch save.
The Uruguayan referee, Andres Cunha, wasn’t buying Hazard’s fall there, but the replay made it look as if Varane hit him knee to knee right at the top of the area.
Yannick Carrasco, a winger who plays in China, comes in for Marouane Fellaini.
Antoine Griezmann lingers over a France free kick. Then he sends a ball that Pogba heads out of play.
De Bruyne, perhaps concerned about the clock advancing to 75 minutes, tries a shot from outside the box but it’s way too high.
Andrew Das: Mertens has been a good addition for Belgium: dangerous crosses and some good width out right. But Fellaini feels like the game has left him behind up there next to Lukaku. Still, a good cross from Mertens, a well-placed head ...... he’s done it before.
Romelu Lukaku has been invisible this game. He has just 16 touches of the ball — Dries Mertens, who came on 15 minutes ago, already has 13 — and one shot. He hasn’t gotten much service and has had a center back draped on his shoulder all game, but he’s got to do better.
Eden Hazard has practically dropped back into defense to receive the ball, as he tries to hurry Belgium into an attack, impatient that his defenders and Axel Witsel aren’t doing so quickly enough.
Andrew Das: Belgium is patiently working the ball, working the ball, working the ball. It all felt a bit like Spain-Russia there, ike they were just looking for an opening. But the opening never came, they lost the ball, and a couple more minutes have ticked off the clock.
Belgium possessed the ball right outside of France’s goal for a solid minute, pumping quite a few crosses into the box, but aren’t able to get a shot off before Paul Pogba clears it with his head.
Kylian Mbappe passes to Antoine Griezmann, who crosses it beautifully to Olivier Giroud, who ... blasts it over the bar.
Eden Hazard gets a yellow there for breaking up the counterattack by dragging down Matuidi, but he had to do it. Fellaini, by the way, has stayed in his advanced role; it’s Witsel who is picking up all the slack in midfield since Dembélé left. It’s a big job, and he can’t make a single mistake.
Mertens crosses, and Fellaini is there, single covered by Pogba, with the head that has scored so many goals. This one goes just wide though.
Hazard, Lukaku and Mertens combine on some nice passing, but the final touch is not there.
Dries Mertens in, Ousmane Dembele out as Belgium tries to shake things up with the first substitution of the game.
Andrew Das: This will make things a bit more exciting, that’s for sure. But it also will require a bit more defensively from Fellaini now, because France senses blood in the water here, and they’re coming forward fast when they can.
Kylian Mbappé sends Olivier Giroud on goal with a spectacular back heel, but Giroud’s shot is blocked at the last moment.
Andrew Das: What a chance that was: brilliant backheel from Mbappe after a quick give-and-go involving Hernandez and Matuidi. Really fun, and Belgium is lucky — and can thank Courtois, I believe — that the ball didn’t end up in the net amid ooohs and ahhhs. It must be nice to be good enough to even TRY that in a World Cup semifinal.
Greizmann has a free kick just outside of the box and it’s another great opportunity for France. But his effort goes right to several Belgians and it is headed away.
After Vincent Kompany blocks an Olivier Giroud shot, a corner comes in from Antoine Griezmann. Samuel Umtiti simply out-jumps the very tall Marouane Fellaini to score. France has a 1-0 lead.
Andrew Das: Disaster for Belgium: Umtiti dropped Alderweireld and nearly had a free header there. Fellaini arrived late to at least make it a contested one, but the damage was already done and the ball was in the net before Courtois could do anything about it.
Witsel lobs in a ball to Lukaku, but Varane of France is all over him, so he gets a head on it but can’t fire off a good shot.
Kevin Draper: It seems appropriate that on the same day Cristiano Ronaldo transfers to Juventus, two of his rumored replacements, Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappé, are the best players in a World Cup match.
One stat increasing in popularity is “possession advanced,” which tries to measure which players move the ball forward the most. A player gets full credit for dribbles forward, and half credit for passes. The leader in this game so far is Benjamin Pavard of France at 118 meters. Eden Hazard leads Belgium at 109.
Andrew Das: The stadium does not appear full, especially in some of the best seats near midfield, which seems strange for a World Cup semifinal. But France and Belgium don’t travel like Brazil, which surely thought it’d be here, or a few other countries, and the atmosphere is missing some of the fire we saw when teams from the Americas played earlier in the tournament. Wednesday night’s second semifinal, England and Croatia, ought to have a bit more life as English fans start to arrive in full voice.
Belgium was the short-passing team in this game, controlling possession at 58-42 percent and outpassing France, 318-201. But France’s direct style led to more shots: an 11-3 advantage. Unfortunately for France, only two of those shots were on net. Six were off target, and three were blocked.
Griezmann led the way with four shots for France, although none of those was on target. Belgium has most of its passing coming from the defense, with Alderweireld and Kompany having 50 and 46 passes. Of course, those uncontested sideways passes in Belgium’s end are taking place a long way from where the goals are scored.
Andrew Das: You could break that first half into halves of its own. The first one, with Belgium dangerous and on the front foot, was quite a bit of fun. France finally found its feet and had a couple of good chances — a rocket by Matuidi, the Pavard shot late — and a few at the other end, including a late cross that found its way to Lukaku, who seemed so surprised to see it come in (it was the first good one in all 45 minutes) that it hit him like a stone and went out of play.
Both teams will find things to like there: Hazard was excellent, probably the best player on the field, and De Bruyne was dangerous at times, too. But Mbappe’s speed is an undeniable asset running at Vertonghen, and Pogba’s ability to shake off Fellaini in the last 10 minutes is a good sign for France.
Kevin Draper: When France has possessed the ball they’ve played direct. Pogba has played a few 40 yard passes from half field that Kylian Mbappé and Olivier Giroud were almost able to get on the other end of. Antoine Griezmann has taken a few long shots, but hasn’t been nearly as dangerous as he was in previous games.
in stoppage time, Kevin De Bruyne crossed a ball into the box for Belgium, but Samuel Umtiti got in the way again, altering the course enough that it caroms off the waiting Lukaku’s hip instead of his foot. And that’s halftime!
Kevin Draper: France was a slight favorite before the match began, but on balance Belgium has been the much better team. Belgium has mostly been attacking on the fringes, avoiding N’Golo Kanté in the middle and counting on Romelu Lukaku to keep the center backs occupied. De Bruyne and Hazard have generated a few chances, and Belgium almost scored off a couple of corner kicks.
Paul Pogba gets into a dangerous position, and is pulled down from behind. France gets a great free kick chance. But Griezmann boots it right into the wall.
France has fully come into this match for the first time in the last five minutes. They still look more comfortable counter attacking than possessing the ball, but they’re starting to generate a few dangerous chances.
Kylian Mbappe plays Benjamin Pavard through with a nice ball, but Courtois manages to tip his shot wide with his back heel. France’s corner kick is then cleared by the first man.
Andrew Das: Gorgeous exchange between Pavard and Mbappé there, but it’s the defender who winds up with the ball and closing on Courtois, who gets a toe on the wayward shot and keeps it out.
Olivier Giroud goes down clutching the back of his right leg after getting clipped. The magic freezing spray is liberally applied to the injured leg, and he hops up good as new.
Andrew Das: The contact that brought down Giroud really seemed innocuous, but he’s really hurting. Just got clipped on the heel, but he’s holding his head like it was a sword wound.
A long ball finds Kylian Mbappe inside the box, and he crosses it on the ground to Olivier Giroud, a step in front of his defender. But Giroud can only half-slide and swing at the ball, and his shot goes well wide. That was France’s best chance so far.
Andrew Das: Giroud really failed Mbappé on that last cross. He was late getting back onside and was watching as the young forward ran on to an overlapping ball, but only belatedly seemed to realize, ‘You know, that might get cross — oh no.’ And when he did realize, he was a step late to the ball, and the chance was wasted.
The first of what we would expect will be numerous penalty appeals in the game as Giroud goes down. The ref is not having it. Then Griezmann gets the ball and shoots with his less effective right foot and misses.
Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne look like the best two players on the pitch. Hazard just filleted Pavard and Pogba but the ball rolled out just before he could control it again, but if he keeps dribbling like that he’s sure to get a goal or assist.
Andrew Das: It’s strange how Fellaini gets involved in so much of what Belgium does up top — crosses, corners — but only with his head. It’s like his teammates won’t pass the ball to his feet. But he’s playing very advanced, just a step or two behind Lukaku, and apparently tasked with winning headers and, failing that, breaking up French attacks before they can start. As soon as he does either of those, he’s off to find Pogba.
Antoine Griezmann takes the free kick for France. He sends it in and Pavard chips it in to Giroud, who hits it wide with his head.
Samuel Umtiti saves the day for France. Kevin De Bruyne crosses the ball low right in front of net and Romelu Lukaku is right there for the poke in. But Umtiti slides in and clears in a last-ditch move.
Fellaini and Pogba are effectively attached at the hip, which is probably not altogether new for either of them, since it probably happens in training at Manchester United quite a bit. But Belgium will take that cold war any day; Pogba is a far more dangerous player when he gets loose. But he can’t get loose, and when Fellaini bodies him, he doesn’t seem to like it. Which may be precisely the point of doing it.
First corner for France (Belgium has four). Felliani easily heads it away.
Another long pass from halfway, and this time Olivier Giroud is on it for France. He lunges for it, doesn’t get quite all of it, and it goes wide.
Kevin Draper: It is quite surprising how flat France has begun this game. They have just as many all-world attackers as Belgium and a defense anchored by stalwarts from Real Madrid and Barcelona, and yet they look like they have already conceded that Belgium is the much better team.
Off of yet another corner, the ball trickles free to Toby Alderweireld at the penalty spot. His left-footed shot is punched out by Hugo Lloris for another corner kick, which amounts to nothing.
Andrew Das: Belgium has come close about four times in the past five minutes — the last on that Alderweireld shot off the corner that Lloris was lucky to save with a dive. It’s been a really entertaining first 20 minutes, but 90 percent of that has been Belgium nearly scoring.That they haven’t may be the one good thing France has done so far.
De Bruyne tries a little chip-shot pass to Felliani, who is just about offsides, although the flag does not go up. Lloris punches it away after a moment of terror for France.
Eden Hazard whips a shot toward the outside post from inside the box, but Raphaël Varane barely got the back of his head on it to hit it behind for a corner.
Blaise Matuidi, returning to France’s lineup for this game, fires off a shot from outside the box that forces Courtois into a save.
Andrew Das: That was a rocket from Matuidi, and a great sign for France. But it hits Courtois right in the gloves. But once again, Belgium is right back at the other end in seconds, with Hazard lashing a shot that Varane nods jussssst over the crossbar behind a beaten Lloris.
Off an interception, Kevin De Bruyne plays a quick one-touch ball to Eden Hazard in the box and he’s unmarked. But Hazard hits it wide right! Good chance.
Kevin Draper: Both Belgium and France have had their best chances of the match in the last few minutes, and perhaps not coincidentally both came quickly after turnovers. This might be a match of intentionally soaking up pressure in order to entice midfielders forward, before hitting back on the counter attack.
Kevin De Bruyne just attacked the French defense at speed, but a miscommunication with Romelu Lukaku caused a turnover and ruined the chance.
A long through ball from halfway by Paul Pogba finds Kylian Mbappe, and he’s a half step ahead of his man. But Courtois slides down to grab it just in time.
Andrew Das: Belgium in a bit of a fluid formation, with Witsel and Dembele protecting the back three, and Chadli dropping in at eight back when France has the ball and he has time.
A rare venture forward by Griezmann and France brings their fans to life — but only briefly, as Kompany clears the first sign of danger with a powerful header. And back down the other end we go ....
Kevin Draper: Both teams have shown ruthless counterattacking prowess this tournament, and so each attack seems cautious in throwing numbers forward. Belgium is patiently probing the French defense, with Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembele both staying at home to protect the back three.
Belgium’s passing has been crisp and prolific so far, with France going some extended periods without touching the ball.
Nacer Chadli’s corner is a little too strong and goes over his teammates’ heads.
That early burst of brilliance by Mbappe has been followed by a few minutes of Belgium trying whatever it wants on the right.
it took Mbappe all of five seconds to drop Vertonghen like a bad penny, race down the wing and flash in a cross that ALMOST met Griezmann in stride. Great start for France.
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