France coach Didier Deschamps urged his side to seize their chance of redemption in the World Cup final after admitting he has still not got over the pain of defeat in the Euro 2016 final.
Samuel Umtiti headed the only goal in a 1-0 semi-final win over Belgium in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, consigning the Red Devils’ ‘golden generation’ to another bitter defeat.
Croatia play England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in Wednesday’s semi-final match at 11.30 pm
France’s own supremely-talented young squad will now aim to make amends for defeat on home soil to Portugal two years ago in Sunday’s showpiece against England or Croatia.
“Finals have to be won because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago,” said Deschamps.
“It is something exceptional. I am very happy for my players. They are young but they have character, a (winning) mentality.”
In a World Cup replete with set-piece goals, a corner again proved decisive when Umtiti timed his run perfectly to meet Antoine Griezmann’s delivery six minutes into the second half.
“The difference sadly is a set play in a very close and tight game,” lamented Belgium boss Roberto Martinez.
“If you are going to have to lose such a match, which is bearable, it is the manner in which our players lost, pushing for everything, trying everything until the final whistle.”
Apart from being the match winner, Umtiti’s partnership with Raphael Varane in central defence continues to flourish, and when called upon, captain Hugo Lloris made important saves at key moments.
At the other end of the field, teenager Kylian Mbappe was France’s biggest threat, but it was another off night for Olivier Giroud as the focal point of Deschamps’s attack.
Giroud has not scored in eight games and is yet to even have a shot on target in Russia.
“I’m not missing too much,” insisted Giroud. “I would have liked to help the team, make the breakthrough tonight.
“That was not the case but, once again, I am confident in my chances to score in the final and help bring back the World Cup. I really hope to do it in the final.”
Belgium controlled possession early on with Eden Hazard the biggest threat. The Chelsea forward pulled the first attempt of goal just beyond the far post, but his next effort was arrowing into the top corner until it flicked off Varane’s head and deflected just over.
Goalkeepers Lloris and Thibaut Courtois played a huge part their sides’ quarter-final victories and it was only thanks to two of the best ‘keepers in the world that the game remained goalless at half-time.
First, Lloris flew to his right to turn behind Toby Alderweireld’s shot on the turn.
At the other end, Mbappe demonstrated the subtler side to his game to play in Benjamin Pavard, but Courtois used his massive 6 feet 5 inch (199 centimetre) frame to deny the Stuttgart full-back his second goal of the tournament. Giroud did at least have a part to play in the decisive opener as, after his shot was deflected wide, Griezmann’s corner was flicked in at the near post by Umtiti.
Martinez introduced an extra attacker in Dries Mertens in an attempt to turn the tide and he nearly had an immediate impact as his cross was headed inches wide by Marouane Fellaini. That was as close as Belgium came to taking the game to extra-time, though, as Lloris comfortably parried a long-range pile-driver from Axel Witsel.
But for Courtois, France’s margin of victory would have been greater as he made saves from Griezmann and Corentin Tolisso in stoppage time. For the generation of Hazard, De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, beating Brazil in the quarter-finals was meant to be the breakthrough on the way to winning a major tournament for the first time. Instead, it proved to be another false dawn.