Les Bleus ad­vance to fi­nal

Umtiti scores only goal in 1-0 World Cup semi­fi­nal vic­tory over Bel­gium

Kenora Daily Miner and News - - SPORTS - STEVE DOU­GLAS

ST. PETERS­BURG, Rus­sia — France is back in the World Cup fi­nal for the first time since Zine­dine Zi­dane’s head­butt in 2006.

Twelve years af­ter one of soc­cer’s most in­fa­mous mo­ments, Sa­muel Umtiti used his head to score from a cor­ner kick in the 51st minute and earn France a 1-0 vic­tory over Bel­gium on Tues­day in the first of the all-Euro­pean semi­fi­nals.

The French danced on the field af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle and shook the hand of Thierry Henry, who helped Les Bleus win the World Cup in 1998 but had been hop­ing to elim­i­nate his na­tive coun­try as Bel­gium’s as­sis­tant coach.

France’s fans sang in the stands long past the end of the match, sur­rounded by yel­low­clad se­cu­rity.

They cer­tainly hope to keep the party go­ing on Sun­day in the fi­nal in Moscow. France will face ei­ther Croa­tia or Eng­land, who play Wed­nes­day at the Luzh­niki Sta­dium in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal.

“Vive la France! Vive la Republique!” France for­ward An­toine Griez­mann shouted dur­ing the post-match cel­e­bra­tions.

France goal­keeper Hugo Lloris made a great save in each half, deny­ing the po­tent Bel­gian at­tack of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku the chance to ad­vance the coun­try to its first ma­jor fi­nal. Bel­gium reached the quar­ter­fi­nals at the 2014 World Cup and the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship in 2016 but has yet to ful­fil its lofty ex­pec­ta­tions.

The world now gets to see France’s lux­ury squad, col­lec­tively val­ued in ex­cess of $1 bil­lion and head­lined by teenage sen­sa­tion Kylian Mbappe, in an­other ma­jor fi­nal.

Two years ago at home, the French sur­pris­ingly lost to Por­tu­gal 1-0 in the Euro 2016 ti­tle match. In 2006, they were beaten in a penalty shootout by Italy in a World Cup fi­nal that was over­shad­owed by Zi­dane head­but­ting op­pos­ing player Marco Mat­er­azzi in the chest in ex­tra time. Zi­dane was sent off in what was his fi­nal match.

In a tour­na­ment dom­i­nated by goals from set pieces, France took the lead from a cor­ner. Griez­mann curled in the ball from the right and Umtiti got in front of tall Bel­gium mid­fielder Marouane Fel­laini to knock in his header at the near post.

“It’s me that scored,” Umtiti said, “but we all de­liv­ered a big game.”

Up in the cor­po­rate seats, French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron re­acted to the goal by shaking the hand of King Philippe of Bel­gium as FIFA pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino watched on be­tween them.

The goal capped an im­pres­sive dis­play by Umtiti, who helped to shut out the most pro­duc­tive at­tack in the World Cup with 14 goals, and meant three de­fend­ers have now scored on France’s route to the fi­nal. Ben­jamin Pavard and Raphael Varane scored in pre­vi­ous matches.

In search of the equal­izer, Bel­gium re­peat­edly sent over crosses from both wings but Umtiti and Varane, both cen­tre backs, used their bod­ies clev­erly to hold off Fel­laini and Lukaku. Varane, in par­tic­u­lar, was out­stand­ing.

France coach Di­dier Deschamps has faced some crit­i­cism for be­ing too prag­matic and func­tional de­spite hav­ing so many stars in his squad, but the or­ga­ni­za­tion of the team was su­perb and Bel­gium was largely re­stricted to only mi­nor chances that were kept out by the fly­ing Lloris.

Deschamps now has the chance to be­come the third per­son to win the World Cup as a player and a coach, af­ter Ger­many great Franz Beck­en­bauer and Brazil’s Mario Za­gallo. As France cap­tain, Deschamps won soc­cer’s most prized tro­phy in 1998.

With Lionel Messi, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and Ney­mar no longer in Rus­sia, Eden Hazard and Mbappe have taken over as the stars of the World Cup and there was a buzz ev­ery time ei­ther got the ball.

Yet while Hazard — Bel­gium’s cap­tain — faded af­ter a strong open­ing 30 min­utes, Mbappe was a con­stant threat. His first touch was af­ter 10 sec­onds and, af­ter re­ceiv­ing the ball on the right wing, he sped past Jan Ver­tonghen and then Mousa Dem­bele in a thrilling run.

At 19, Mbappe wasn’t even born when France won the World Cup for the first and only time with a squad that is just as di­verse as the one Deschamps is lead­ing 20 years later.

Lloris is the cap­tain and he played a key role against Bel­gium, div­ing to his right mid­way through the first half to claw away Toby Alder­weireld’s shot and then get­ting in front of Lukaku to punch away one of sub­sti­tute Dries Mertens’ many crosses.

“Un­for­tu­nately for us, the dif­fer­ence is just a dead-ball sit­u­a­tion, a set play,” Bel­gium coach Roberto Mar­tinez said. “The game was, as you can imag­ine, very close, very tight, and it was go­ing to be de­cided (on) maybe the one that it could find that fi­nal touch in the box.”

In­stead of a trip to Moscow, Bel­gium will re­turn to St. Peters­burg for the third-place match.

NATACHA PISARENKO/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

France’s Sa­muel Umtiti heads the ball to score the open­ing goal of the game dur­ing the semi­fi­nal match be­tween France and Bel­gium at the 2018 soc­cer World Cup, at the St. Peters­burg Sta­dium in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia, on Tues­day.

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