France's players celebrate their win at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between France and Belgium at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg.(AFP)
France's players celebrate their win at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between France and Belgium at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg.(AFP)

FIFA World Cup 2018: How smart France trumped beautiful Belgium

France stayed patient, targeted Moussa Dembele to quell Belgium’s attacking brilliance
Hindustan Times, Saint Petersburg | By Bhargab Sarmah
UPDATED ON JUL 11, 2018 05:55 PM IST

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois’ ‘anti-football’ barb at France after losing their closely-contested semi-final 1-0, at the Krestovsky Stadium here on Tuesday, revealed how frustrating it can be to play Didier Deschamps’ team.

France came into the World Cup with arguably the strongest squad in the tournament. However, Deschamps’ side has looked visibly reserved in Russia. Barring a 4-3 win over Argentina in the Round of 16, their attack has not been the most pleasing in this tournament.

Instead, France have preferred playing a waiting game like they did against Roberto Martinez’s Belgium.

The Belgians, led by the effervescent Eden Hazard, started brightly. France sat back, eager not to cede any opening to opponents who had devoured Brazil in a frenetic first half of their quarter-final. Deschamps’ boys knew what their opponents were capable of.

In the first half-an-hour, the only peep France had at the opposition’s goal was when Paul Pogba danced past a couple of midfielders and set Kylian Mbappe through. Alert to the danger, Courtois promptly dashed forward and collected.

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Then as the game progressed, France spotted a few openings. First, Olivier Giroud got to the end of a Benjamin Pavard cross but headed wide. Then, the Chelsea forward failed to finish an Mbappe cross from the right.

To compound matters for Belgium, France had identified their weak link. Mousa Dembele has been an immense figure at Tottenham Hotspur in recent seasons but was a shadow of his usual self in the semi-final.

Griezmann and Pogba, and occasionally Blaise Matuidi, targeted Dembele, drawing fouls from him and disrupting Belgium’s flow.

And then, early in the second half came the sucker punch! The first goal was always going to be important in a game like this.

Despite all their attacking riches, it took a centre-back’s header from a set-piece, like in the quarter-final to hand France the lead. Raphael Varane had done the job against Uruguay; Samuel Umtiti scored from a corner this time.

It was a cold, maybe even slightly underwhelming performance but enough to get France over the finishing line. But as much as the game was about Deschamps’ calculated approach, it also laid bare Martinez’s failings with this Belgium side.

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Against Brazil, he had changed the set-up and taken a gamble that had the potential to go all wrong. On Tuesday, he responded to the suspension of Thomas Meunier by bringing in Dembele.

The formation he used looked fluid in the opening exchanges but lacked enough penetration to cut open the French defence.

In spite of Courtois’ ‘anti-football’ rant, the French side, with its supposedly conservative approach, conjured 19 attempts on goal, five on target, as opposed to Belgium’s nine, three on target. Deschamps’ side managed this with a little over one-third of possession.

“We had the ball and I think we have to give a lot of credit to France for the way they defended. They were very deep; they gave us a lot of respect in that way and yet we couldn’t find a bit of margin in front of goal, a little bit of luck,” said Martinez.

Yet, more than luck, it was perhaps France’s ability to wait and pounce on mistakes that proved to be the difference.

An adventurous brand of football can get a team far at a major tournament – Joachim Loew’s Germany reached the semi-finals in 2010 with a style of play that earned admiration across the world – but to become world champions, smart is more likely to trump the beautiful.

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