96th : At the final whistle, France’s captain Hugo Lloris dropped on his knees, mouth wide open shouting YES in English, a Premier League reminiscence, for the illusion of playing against an english league team was almost complete…he was fighting against three of his Tottenham team mates and the rest of the Belgian team’s were also familiar opponents in several big english clubs.
France had made it to the World Cup final! The players in blue were embracing each other, eyes turned to Moscow and the game vs England or Croatia. It’s not over yet, they said; still suffering from the Euros loss at their own country, they knew that caution is a must.
Samuel Umtiti scored the decisive goal, while Hugo Lloris and Raphael Varane made sure to keep a clean sheet, not an easy task against Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. The French were extremely solid and efficient , protecting their lead, while Belgium were struggling to find any openings for a counter.The Red Devils could have scored after Giroud’s attempted clearence(22nd). The ball dropped behind Alderweireld who turned and shot from 14 yards, but Lloris save tipped the ball around the post. Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, all their shots had the same fate. Belgium continued to knock the ball around and it was obvious that Les Bleus privileged the counter-attack game whenever got the ball, relying on Mbappé to spring them forward.
Nevertheless, Belgium had players who were able to win the game, that golden generation led by Roberto Martinez seconded by France’s international and Didier Deschamps’ former team mate, Thierry Henry. “The difference between defeat and a win was one dead-ball situation” Martinez said. But there were other causes too, like Lukaku, such a rampaging force against Brazil, a phantom player against the French.
Possession does not rhyme with victory; in front of the watching French president Emmanuel Macron, Deschamps players’ proved their faith to the former World and European champion by respecting his plan from start to finish. Blaise Matuidi was back, always a key figure, just as NGolo Kanté and Paul Pogba; even if Olivier Giroud wasn’t always as quick as he should be, his hold-up play was a valuable asset helping his team mates to create some important gaps.
A must mention for Kyllian Mbappé: still a nineteen year old teenager but on the pitch he’s unstoppable, including an outrageous piece of skill, shall we call it Mbackheel…another personnal highlight. Mbappé carried France’s hopes despite his young age; he did it by slipping a lovely pass to Pavard, but Thibaut Courtois made the block. The already famous “Mbackheel” took place at the edge of the area; after dragging the ball first with his right foot, the youngster transfered it to his left foot and flicked a first-time back-heel pass to Giroud. Alas the striker’s shot was blocked, but what a goal would that be !
Martinez tried to make some changes to help the team back into the game, but Umtiti and Varane stood big behind the very well balanced midfield of Kanté, Matuidi and Paul Pogba. Belgium weren’t able to play the second half with the same force as the first one; Lukaku touched the ball only four times in thirty minutes.
The Belgian prime minister mischievously observed last week-end that some of his compatriots regard their neighbours from France prone to being a bit pretentious; maybe he was looking for some international sympathies in case that the french reality could overcome the game’s result. Indeed the “Red Devils ” after the game interviews , weren’t in “the Bleus‘ favour. Thibaut Courtois accused France of playing the”anti-football” game; Eden Hazard admitted more diplomatically that his side lost out to a team that was “more solid” and “efficient”: “I prefer to lose with this Belgium than win with this France” he said. Sour grapes? Who knows , but the fact is that history retain only the names of the winners, good or bad… After their cruel loss at the Euros, Deschamps’ men decided to avoid another heartbreak whatever the cost and who can blame them…
Nevertheless, they’re not Champions, yet. There’s another game, against another good team, England or Croatia, but that’s another story.
FRANCE: Hugo Lloris(GK) : 7/10 Benjamin Pavard : 7/10 Raphael Varane MOTM : 8,5/10 Samuel Umtiti : 7/10 Lucas Hernandez : 6,5/10 NGolo Kanté : 7,5/10 Paul Pogba : 8/10 Kyllian Mbappé : 8/10 Antoine Griezmann : 7,5/10 Blaise Matuidi : 7/10 Olivier Giroud : 6,5/10
BELGIUM : Thibaut Courtois(GK) : 6/10 Toby Alderweireld : 7/10 Vincent Kompany : 6/10 Jan Vertonghen : 6:5/10 Axel Witsel : 6/10 Nacer Chadli : 6/10 Moussa Dembélé : 6/10 Marouane Fellaini : 6/10 Kevin De Bruyne : 6,5/10 Romelu Lukaku : 5,5/10 Eden Hazard : 7/10