World Cup Daily: France is equal parts style and grit

Craig Forrest and James Sharman recap France's win over Belgium at the 2018 World Cup.

After each matchday of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Sportsnet.ca’s World Cup Daily blog will recap the day’s events, and look ahead to the next day’s slate of games.

Here’s what happened on Tuesday, in case you missed it…

THE RESULT

France 1, Belgium 0 in Saint Petersburg: Match report || match stats

MAIN TALKING POINT

Vive Les Bleus!
France has advanced to the World Cup final for the third time in history, its passage through to the title game owing us much to the grit and determination it’s shown as to the silky stylish play they’ve displayed in Russia.

Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann will quite rightly hog the majority of headlines and media attention. They’ve been absolutely integral to Les Bleus’ run, Mbappé with his blinding pace and acceleration, and his fearlessness in taking on opposing defenders; Griezmann with his goals (a team-high three) and his ability to set others up (two assists). Only England’s Harry Kane (six goals) has been involved in more goals at this World Cup than Griezmann.

But as dangerous and lithe as the French have been going forward, they’ve been even better in defending their goal. Tuesday’s win over Belgium was their fourth clean sheet of the tournament, and a big reason why France’s defence has been so difficult to breach has been because of Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane. Rivals at club level (Umtiti plays for Barcelona, Varane at Real Madrid), they have combined to great effect at this tournament, staking a rightful claim to being the best centre-back duo in international soccer. Varane and Umtiti have also contributed to the attack, with this World Cup marking the first time since 1998 that three French defenders scored in the same tournament – Benjamin Pavard has also found the back of the net for France.

They have been capably abetted by the central midfield pairing of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, who have served aa the ultimate shield for the French back line. If you want to get past France’s defence, you must first go through Kante and Pogba, and that has proven to be a Herculean task, as Belgium’s wonderful attacking trio of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne discovered.

Behind all of them has been the steady Hugo Lloris, not the flashiest or most accomplished of goalkeepers, but certainly the best at this competition. The Tottenham shot stopper has routinely made sensational saves when called upon, serving as the ultimate last line of a defence.

The French have been as tough as any side to break down in Russia, and they now stand on the cusp of making amends for their capitulation against Portugal on home soil in the finals of Euro 2016.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth daily coverage.

BEST GOAL

Only one to choose from today, but it was worthy of winner to send France through to the final. In the 51st minute, Samuel Umtiti managed to get in front of his marker at the front post and head home Antoine Griezmann’s corner kick past Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

BEST SAVE

In the 22nd minute, the ball fell to Toby Alderweireld in the penalty box, and the Belgian quickly turned and aimed a shot for the far post. France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, Alderweireld’s teammate at Tottenham, made a fabulous diving stop at full stretch to deflect the ball around the post.

BEST MOMENT

Early in the second half, Kylian Mbappe went on an attacking run, and the French teenager was so quick that photographers struggled to properly capture it.

BEST TWEET

BEST QUOTE

“I’m a rare breed. I’m an Englishman who doesn’t drink tea.” – England manager Gareth Southgate ahead of Wednesday’s semifinal versus Croatia.

The Playbook
Young, inexperienced England doesn't know any better but to win
July 10 2018

SIX PACK OF STATS

• Belgium’s Eden Hazard completed six dribbles in the first half against France. The other 21 players on the pitch combined for eight dribbles.

• Hugo Lloris is now tied with Didier Deschamps with 103 France caps. Only five players have played more games for Les Bleus: Lilian Thuram (142), Thierry Henry (123), Marcel Desailly (116), Zinedine Zidane (108) and Patrick Vieira (107).

• Didier Deschamps is the first manager in France history to reach the final of 2 two major tournaments (Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018).

• Since playing in its first one in 1998, France has reached more World Cup finals (three) than any other nation.

• Five of the last nine World Cup semifinal matches have finished 1-0.

• Tuesday marked the first World Cup semifinal match in history without one of Brazil, Argentina, Germany or Italy.

Stats courtesy of Opta

THREE STARS

1) Samuel Umtiti, France: Scored the game’s lone goal, and was outstanding in helping to marshal a French defence that shut down Belgium’s potent attack.

2) Hugo Lloris, France: The Tottenham goalkeeper made a few big saves, including midway through the first half to prevent Belgium from taking the lead.

3) Thibaut Courtois, Belgium: Another solid outing from the Chelsea goalkeeper who made a number of important saves in the second half to keep his side in the game.

The Big Show
Tommy Wheeldon Jr. on France's big semifinal win and he previews England/Croatia
July 10 2018

LOOKING AHEAD TO WEDNESDAY

Semifinals: Croatia vs. England in Moscow (2:00 p.m. ET) – Fatigue might be a factor in this one, as Croatia is coming off two consecutive shootout wins, while England took care of Sweden in regulation time in the quarterfinals. The English have shown great resilience to get to this point, their young squad carrying them to a semifinal appearance for the first time since 1990. But the Three Lions should have their hands full with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, one of the finest midfield duos in international soccer.

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB

Nicklas Kastrup of These Football Times writes about Croatia’s history of producing top-quality midfield generals:

Robert Prosinečki and Zvonimir Boban paved the way for a generation of young Croatian talents when they first moved to big European powers and then took bronze at Croatia’s first ever World Cup in 1998. Niko Kovač built on that success both on and off the pitch with his professionalism and consistency, and Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić have taken things yet further, ensuring two of the world’s very best midfielders hail from the nation of just four million. It’s a vivid testament to a small country continuing to make waves in the world game.

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