At the final whistle the pocket of French supporters behind the goal to the left, with their tricolours and memories of 1998, could celebrate another triumphant night. France had made it to the World Cup final and will surely fancy their chances of being reunited with that coveted piece of gold in Moscow on Sunday. The players in blue were embracing and a Belgium side heavily made up of players from the Premier League will have to wonder whether the time will ever come for their golden generation.
The unfortunate truth is it may not but, if nothing else, Belgium will go with a lot of people’s good wishes bearing in mind Roberto Martínez’s side knocked out Brazil to reach this semi-final and have contributed richly to what is being acclaimed as the most attractive World Cup in memory. Here, though, they could not build on an encouraging start and were worn down by a side with a superior blend when it comes to striking the right balance between attack and defence.
That will make France formidable opponents in Sunday’s final, no matter whether it is England or Croatia who join them in the Luzhniki stadium, and especially when the feeling persists that they may be capable of taking their football to a higher level. This was a controlled victory, rather than an exhilarating one, but there were still plenty of reasons to admire the team Didier Deschamps has put together.
Samuel Umtiti scored the decisive goal but the lingering memory might actually be Kylian Mbappé’s exquisite drag back to present Olivier Giroud with another chance later in the second half. If England can make it back to Moscow for the final, what a challenge it will be to keep out this brilliant young player and that is even before considering the elegant brilliance of Antoine Griezmann, or the uncommon gifts of a midfield featuring Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté.
France might have taken their time to get going but after a slow start they began to take control towards the end of the first half and once they had taken the lead six minutes after the interval there were only fleeting moments when Belgium threatened an equaliser.
Early on the team in red had kept the ball with an assurance that suggested this could be a famous night for Belgian football. By the end Eden Hazard was starting to take on too much and Belgium had conspicuously run out of ideas. Even Kevin de Bruyne began to look a little wild.
Romelu Lukaku had a difficult match and in the final exchanges it was Corentin Tolisso, one of the France substitutes, who had the best chance. De Bruyne was dropping back into the centre circle to get the ball in his desperation to create something. Hazard was doing the same and, when Belgium really needed something special from their elite performers, it never arrived. It was a disjointed second-half display and, with such an array of category A players, a hugely disappointing one, too.
It was France who produced the more rounded display and created the better chances, usually on the counterattack. They were set up to play that way for most of the game and, when Mbappé was getting into his stride, with his combination of speed, directness and raw power, anything was possible.
Yet this was not a team who went for the throat – not all the time, anyway. Deschamps had even modified his formation to use Blaise Matuidi in a more withdrawn role than normal, reducing the risk of being opened up in midfield. Griezmann occupied a left-sided role, rather than playing as a classic No 10, and it took a while before they started to examine the theory – as many sides once discovered in the Premier League – that teams managed by Martínez often tend to be vulnerable at the back.
He had an attacking midfielder, Nacer Chadli, operating at right-back and a centre-half, Jan Vertonghen, on the left. For all the talent in Belgium’s squad, where were the full-backs? Vertonghen, in particular, had his work cut out given Mbappé was his direct opponent and the game’s decisive moment told its own story: a corner, a header and that was all France needed.
The most surprising part on this occasion was to see Marouane Fellaini losing out in the air. Griezmann swung the ball over from the right and Umtiti had the run on his marker. The ball flashed off his forehead but it also took a little touch off Fellaini before going past Thibaut Courtois in the Belgian goal.
Courtois had already kept out Benjamin Parvard during that first flurry of France pressure towards the end of the first half and Belgium, having started so assuredly, were finding it difficult to rediscover their fluency. Too often their passes went astray.
Lukaku had only one reasonable chance throughout. Mousa Dembélé was substituted after an unusually poor game and, as Hazard and De Bruyne faded, France started looking forward to a showpiece night and the possibility of joining Argentina and Uruguay as two-times winners of the World Cup. They will take some stopping