July 22, 2018, 11:50 pm
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France headed for finals

ST PETERSBURG. — Samuel Umtiti’s 51st-minute header sent France into the World Cup final with a ruthless 1-0 win over Belgium in an absorbing first semi-final on Tuesday.

Didier Deschamps’ side will face England or Croatia in Moscow on Sunday as the French look to lift the trophy for the second time following their triumph on home soil in 1998.

In an enthralling, albeit highly tactical rather than incident-packed match, it was once again a set-piece that proved decisive with Umtiti’s near-post header from an Antoine Griezmann corner settling matters.

Having gained the lead, France showed its defensive brilliance nullify the threat from Belgium’s Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, closing out the game for a win that sent them to its second straight major tournament final, following their loss to Portugal in Euro 2016.

It had been suggested that France needed to step up a level in quality to get past the Belgians and they did just that even if its disciplined, professional performance hardly set the pulses racing.

But the worrying factor for Croatia or England is that France still look to have another gear to move into.

Deschamps, coach at Euro 2016 and captain of the 1998 World Cup winners, suggested as much.

“We showed character and mentality, it was very hard for us tonight. We worked hard defensively, we needed to take advantage a bit more in the counter-attacks but congratulations to my players and my staff,” he said.

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was left frustrated by his team missing out to a set-piece goal, a familiar outcome in this tournament.

“Unfortunately for us the difference was a dead-ball situation. The game was very close, very tight and it was going to be decided by a little bit of luck in front of goal,” he said.

Belgium took early control of midfield with France content to sit deep and eliminate the threat of counter-attacks Hazard and De Bruyne.

But it was by no means a purely negative approach as the French offered its own danger on the break, perfectly illustrated when Paul Pogba’s delivery sent Kylian Mbappe racing towards goal and Belgium was thankful its keeper Thibaut Courtois was alert to snuff out the danger.

The first real opening came in the 16th minute when De Bruyne hooked the ball into the path of Hazard whose shot was just wide of Hugo Lloris’s far post.  
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