France narrow 1-0 winners over Belgium, securing final berth

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By Evan Morgan Grahame, Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    A central midfielder, and false nine, and now a right winger; Kevin de Bruyne is a jack of all trades, master of… well, all trades, apparently.

    Starting on the right side of a front three against France in Belgium’s FIFA World Cup semi-final, de Bruyne was seen drifting into the middle at times, as right-wing-back Nacer Chadli provided the width on the flank.

    Other moments saw him drop deep to collect the ball, or linger in the archetypal No.10 position, or push forward past the defensive line as an auxiliary striker.

    Roberto Martinez’s attacking scheme is a fluid, multi-faceted system that demands a certain versatility and adaptability from the players in it; in this way, de Bruyne is Belgium’s most important player. Martinez waxed lyrical on this subject in the days before the semi-final.

    Still, in perhaps a less versatile but slight more persistent way, Belgium’s most important player is Eden Hazard, a player for whom the wings are the natural home, who did largely winger-type things in this match, and who for all his comparative specificity, was his side’s best attacker.

    Belgium's Eden Hazard controls the ball during the World Cup Group H qualifying soccer match between Bosnia and Belgium at the Grbavica stadium in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

    Eden Hazard. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

    The wisdom of France’s decision to play on the counter, the default Didier Deschamps position, was truly tested here. The offensive might of Belgium is unmatched in this tournament, and the dizzying cocktail of movement and sheer force meant France had to seriously reassess whether relying primarily on their defence to launch attacks was even a viable option.

    After a short period of possession to begin the game, France settled back into their counter-ready stance, and so formed the basic demeanour of the contest; Belgium pushing forward, passing across the pitch, searching for a gap to exploit.

    France were forced not just to reckon with all the traditional Belgian attackers, but also with a marauding Marouane Fellaini – who started in midfield again for the second straight game – who romped forward to contest aerial passes, causing Raphael Varane in particular acute concern.

    Hazard, meanwhile, was roasting Benjamin Pavard on the French right hand side, beating him off the dribble time and time again. Three times in the first half Hazard threatened to score; first he was denied by Varane’s head after cutting and shooting, then he speared a shot wide, then he forced Hugo Lloris into a sharp save. All three chances came from the left, bypassing or losing Pavard.

    When they lose the ball, Belgium press hard to get it back within five or ten seconds, a customary Martinez direction. The key for France’s counter-attacks was whether they could survive and make forward progress during these intense periods, and it was a test they passed, by and large, in the first half.

    Paul Pogba, Antoine Greizmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud all have quick enough feet and reactions to thrive while under heavy duress.

    Obviously, Mbappe was central to all France’s best moments; he tore away down the wing in the opening 15 seconds, and kept on at that pace for most of his time on the ball. It was from Mbappe’s neat through ball, exposing the ever-present fragility in this Belgian defence, that sent Pavard through. Only Thibaut Courtois’ ankle prevented the opening goal.

    Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring for France

    Kylian Mbappe of France. (Photo by Michael Regan – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

    The wing shared by Hazard and Mbappe was the main action area, stocked as it was with two absolute menaces, both of whom were found occasionally wanting in their defensive tracking. Set pieces, typically in this World Cup, were steeped with added importance; Toby Alderweireld tested Lloris with a snap-shot from a corner, and Greizmann struck a free kick into the red wall shortly before the half.

    The break came, with both teams having enjoyed clear chances, giving both reason to think their differing, dovetailing approaches would win them the lead at some point.

    So, for all this tactical tussling and consideration of how these teams would meet in the open field, Samuel Umtiti opened the scoring from, yes, yet another set-piece conversion. A corner, swooped into the near post found, Umtiti, who had escaped the clutches of Fellaini. He glanced a header past Courtois, and France led.

    Fellaini grimaced, as Umtiti strutted off to celebrate with Pogba at the corner flag. This was the ideal start to the second half for France; a set piece goal to further coax out their opponents, and as a result be even more vulnerable on the counter.

    Mbappe nearly crafted a second goal, playing Giroud in with a sublime backheel. Only Moussa Dembele’s desperate tackle saved a second going in.

    As Belgium’s urgency lifted, and France’s counter-play relaxed into a one-goal-up, well-oiled state, it became clear just how high-spec this contest was, how staggering the collection of blue-chip attackers on show here was, and how wonderful the latter stages of the World Cup can be when the footballing quality concentrates into this rare, ambrosial nectar.

    Dries Mertens was brought on, for Dembele, and took up an advanced position that shunted de Bruyne back into his more usual central midfield spot. Mertens and de Bruyne got to work on the right, setting and resetting a crossing position that ended with Fellaini heading just wide. De Bruyne, his influence growing, was then seen working with Hazard on the left, setting the team up to cross from that side. The match ticked past the 75th minute.

    A few wild collisions sent a number of France players to the floor, eating up precious seconds. Yannick Carrasco came on for Fellaini, a substitution which significantly reduced the viability of crosses into the area. This France defence is formidable, and with the added gamesmanship, Belgium’s situation was becoming increasingly desperate.

    Belgium’s vigour waned, and France’s excitement grew. There was no coherent strategy to Belgium’s late-game offence, as ball were punted or crossed aimlessly, more in hope than intention. Martinez’s substitutions were also questionable, a common criticism.

    France could have scored a second, with Courtois saving twice as the embers of this match faded. The final whistle went, and France were 1-0 winners, almost exactly as Deschamps would have scripted.

    The two managers here made inverted decisions; with such quality in defence, Belgium leave the back to its own devices, confident they can do enough defensively to let the attack win them the game.

    For France, the quality in attack is such that Deschamps can be confident that his team will score, leaving him free to focus on making sure the opposition don’t. Deschamps’s gameplan hasn’t really changed all tournament; Martinez’s seems in a constant state of flux.

    Underpinning this clash of spangling players was a clash of ideology; and, perhaps predictably, the more conservative, more stoic ideology won.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.

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    The Crowd Says (60)

    • July 11th 2018 @ 6:37am
      jameswm said | July 11th 2018 @ 6:37am | ! Report

      Allez Les Bleus!!

    • Roar Rookie

      July 11th 2018 @ 6:44am
      Waz said | July 11th 2018 @ 6:44am | ! Report

      This game pretty much confirmed there’s little between these two sides, as will tonight’s other semi-final. And the remaining two games after that will confirm all four sides are close in ability.
      France got their tactics right, but only just, and Belgium just blew their best opportunity to reach a WC final and will feel this pain for decades.

      France v who now?

      • Roar Rookie

        July 11th 2018 @ 6:46am
        Stevo said | July 11th 2018 @ 6:46am | ! Report

        Croatia!

      • Roar Guru

        July 11th 2018 @ 7:34am
        Griffo said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:34am | ! Report

        Agree, especially about Belgium.

    • July 11th 2018 @ 7:00am
      jamesb said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:00am | ! Report

      It’s France’s tournament to lose and will start favourites in the final. They will have a handy 24 hour preparation head start. Just wondering, should both semi finals be played on the same day?

      Les Bleus most important player is Kante. He looks after the opposition’s key player and was the key reason why Leicester City won the EPL.

      • Roar Rookie

        July 11th 2018 @ 7:10am
        Waz said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:10am | ! Report

        I’d agree the any winner of this game would start as favourites in Sunday’s final, but only just. Belgium have probably been the best side in the tournament with France not really impressing – but they know how to get the job done.

        • July 11th 2018 @ 7:20am
          jamesb said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:20am | ! Report

          And Australia may have the world champions in their group. France just got over the line against Australia.

          • July 11th 2018 @ 7:59am
            PB said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:59am | ! Report

            And Denmark drew with France – so you’re saying, it’s like they’re almost World champs too!

            • July 11th 2018 @ 8:46am
              jamesb said | July 11th 2018 @ 8:46am | ! Report

              The France/ Denmark game, wasn’t even a game. It seemed like both sides shook hands on a nil all draw before the match.

              In future, if you have trouble sleeping, watch that game on demand.

    • July 11th 2018 @ 7:17am
      Peterd said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:17am | ! Report

      I can see England winning this semi final. They look younger and fresher than Croatia. Also they’ve been rested for the Belgium game.

      • Roar Rookie

        July 11th 2018 @ 10:05am
        Waz said | July 11th 2018 @ 10:05am | ! Report

        England are very young and inexperienced, only 5 of the squad are over 25 and only five have been at a World Cup before so it’s English youth v Croatian experience tonight.

    • July 11th 2018 @ 7:35am
      Buddy said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:35am | ! Report

      Neymar has been taking the accolades for theatrics and diving ability but the team gold medal must surelygo to France? Lloris made fewer dives than some of his team mates. It wasn’t a game to get the pulse racing, nor was it a good advert for the sport really. As has been stated plenty of times, the football very much reflected the personality of the coach . Hope to orrow’s game is more entertaining.

      • July 11th 2018 @ 8:50am
        Kangas said | July 11th 2018 @ 8:50am | ! Report

        Unfortunately the game reflected badly on football. Negativity and theatrical behaviour wins important matches .
        Shame after such a good tournament

        • July 12th 2018 @ 7:54pm
          Laurent Austin said | July 12th 2018 @ 7:54pm | ! Report

          How did this game reflect badly on football?
          France scored and asked Belgium for a reply!
          It didnt come!

          But furthermore…

          Please watch the second half again Kangas!

          What i saw was:
          Courtois made at least 1 great save and one decent save ( both in extra time) – Tolisso and Greizmann
          Brilliant blocks from Alderweirald off Matuidi and Dembele off Giroud – just following the 48 min goal.
          Yellow card to Hazard for intentionally stopping a counter (Pogba pulled down with a 2 on one Greizmann and Mbappe v Alderveirald 63rd min) and thus likely exposing Courtois!
          Mbappe pulled back by Fellaini 77th min.
          So yeah Belg all fair in love and war!
          Giroud then allegedly fouling Hazard (80 min) – right in front of the ref about 5 metres away with clear sight?

          You are lambasting a team who followed their managers instructions to the letter imo – and this reflects poorly on the game?’

          I think you are selling the work done by Varane and Pogba short – had the keepers not been so good Pavard would have scored as would have Alderveirald 1-1 at half.

          Then France were worth another 2 post half time.

          To me it was a France 3-1 game – denied by two magnificent keepers and defences fully on their game!

          So 1/62 games totally sours this tournament for you?

      • July 11th 2018 @ 9:40am
        MQ said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:40am | ! Report

        Fozz was raving about what a high quality game it was. Sure, we had occasional glilmpses of the class and quality of some players, and occasionally they did some cute things around the box, but then again, we had yet another game where the only goal came from a set piece, and the last 10 minutes were unbearable to watch given the French team’s time wasting antics.

        Having said that, I did agree with Fozz about how well Griezmann played, and his importance to the French team, and Pogba’s role in the last 25 min of the game when Belgium was bombing the ball into the mixer in hope.

        Both keepers did well.

      • July 11th 2018 @ 9:41am
        RandyM said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:41am | ! Report

        i only caught the second half and I didn’t see any “diving” , definitely no rolling around on the ground

        • July 11th 2018 @ 9:46am
          MQ said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:46am | ! Report

          You didn’t notice France’s time wasting antics in the last 10 minutes? Seriously?

          • July 11th 2018 @ 9:52am
            Redondo said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:52am | ! Report

            Of course they tried to run the clock down – who wouldn’t? But diving – who?

          • July 11th 2018 @ 9:54am
            RandyM said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:54am | ! Report

            yeah i saw that, but i didn’t see any Neymar type dives for penalties

          • July 11th 2018 @ 10:53am
            Lionheart said | July 11th 2018 @ 10:53am | ! Report

            Mbappe delayed play a bit, throwing the ball away and got a yellow. Otherwise, I didn’t see anything unusual – you can’t say holding the ball in the corner with your body is an anrtic.

            • July 11th 2018 @ 9:39pm
              MQ said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:39pm | ! Report

              There were a few: oh-I-need-to-sit-down-now-in-the-middle-of-the-pitch-please-stop-play-there-might-be-something-wrong-with-me.

              Matuidi did it at least twice.

          • July 11th 2018 @ 12:07pm
            jameswm said | July 11th 2018 @ 12:07pm | ! Report

            Any team tries to run down the clock int he last 10 if they’re in the lead.

          • July 12th 2018 @ 7:55pm
            Laurent Austin said | July 12th 2018 @ 7:55pm | ! Report

            Didnt you notice Courtois was magnificent in the last 10 mins?

      • July 11th 2018 @ 9:41am
        Redondo said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:41am | ! Report

        Maybe not a thrill a minute but the skill level in attack and defence of these 2 teams was great to watch. Kante is a phenomenon in both respects.

        I don’t get the diving criticism. There was little that was overtly theatrical.

    • July 11th 2018 @ 7:54am
      Kangas said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:54am | ! Report

      Park the bus France and counter .

      A massive decision by the referee not to give hazard a free kick on the edge of the box in the second half for a clear foul . Such a bad decision .

      Martinez choice to start with chadli and not bring on a second striker until the 92 minute defies belief . Belgium were always going to be impeded by Martinez and so it was today .

      In the end the better coaching and organisation of France on the counter attack got the win .
      So much play acting from France near the end , compounded what was a tough lesson for Belgium, that negativity wins big matches .

      A disappointing game between the best 2 teams in the tournament.

      I think England might destroy Croatia tonight to set up a England France final. 2 nations with plenty of scorn for each other .

      • July 11th 2018 @ 9:48am
        Redondo said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:48am | ! Report

        The bus the French park is more like a drag racer – 0 to 100 in 2 seconds every time they win the ball.

        It’s just a different way to play attacking football.

        • Roar Guru

          July 11th 2018 @ 3:02pm
          JamesH said | July 11th 2018 @ 3:02pm | ! Report

          +1

          People keep talking like this French team is boring and negative. I find it bizarre. The way they set up to cut sides open with their pace (which is their strength) is really interesting to watch. In a way they were more attacking than Belgium.

          For all the accusations being thrown at them, France has 10 goals from 6 matches (4 in one match), conceding just 4 (3 in that same match) and falling behind only once (again, that same match). They haven’t required extra time in three knockout matches, let alone penalties. It’s about as complete a performance as you’ll see.

      • July 11th 2018 @ 10:58am
        Lionheart said | July 11th 2018 @ 10:58am | ! Report

        I wondered why the VAR didn’t pull up that foul you refer to Kanga? They showed a replay (at least on Optus) and it was a clear foul. But I didn’t think France parked the bus – Michael Bridges said that too, but in that case their bus was quick and had plenty of attacking plays.
        I really enjoyed this game – a semi-final so we had to expect a boxing match between two teams fairly evenly matched skill-wise, and we got a boxing match, high speed with some fantastic defence to boot.

        • Roar Guru

          July 11th 2018 @ 3:04pm
          JamesH said | July 11th 2018 @ 3:04pm | ! Report

          Because VAR only reviews penalties, offsides and goals.

      • July 11th 2018 @ 11:34am
        mad monk said | July 11th 2018 @ 11:34am | ! Report

        No worse than the bus parked by Belgium when they went up against Brazil.

        Belgium were good early but in the second half de Bruyen had to go so deep to get the ball that he was not a threat and they could not find Lukaku at all.

        Didn’t see any diving, ref was generous with no cards for Dembele and no foul on Hazard late on was a big no call.

      • July 11th 2018 @ 2:18pm
        Mitcher said | July 11th 2018 @ 2:18pm | ! Report

        There is not one single equivalence between ‘parking the bus’ and the way France play.

        • Roar Rookie

          July 11th 2018 @ 2:59pm
          Waz said | July 11th 2018 @ 2:59pm | ! Report

          There is no coaching definition of ‘parking the bus’ which is a mere colloquialism created by football commentators, so naturally without definition it’s subject to interpretation.

          I agree with you though. France didn’t park the bus, they sat deep and countered and – as jb points out – that’s in vogue with coaches lately. Frances counter attacks were beautiful at times 👍

          (Parking the bus to me normally means making virtually no attempt to attack, often done when down to ten men or s really weak team meets a really strong one).

        • July 11th 2018 @ 5:39pm
          MQ said | July 11th 2018 @ 5:39pm | ! Report

          You mean, apart from having all 11 players permanently camped in your own defensive 3rd?

          • July 11th 2018 @ 7:46pm
            Mitcher said | July 11th 2018 @ 7:46pm | ! Report

            They’re neither parked, nor a bus. If you can’t see the difference, well so be it.

            • July 11th 2018 @ 9:15pm
              MQ said | July 11th 2018 @ 9:15pm | ! Report

              No, only 11 French footballers sat deep in their own half for large segments of the second half.

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