France - Belgium 1-0 (Umtiti '51)
|Belgium, the land of palm trees|
So normally I'd dismiss Belgium as high profile under-achievers, a status they're very much used to it, but after their brushing aside of Brazil I had to think twice. I still thought France have one foot ahead, but the closer we got to the starting whistle the tougher the game became to call. But two hours later it has been proved, once again, that in such close call games pedigree can be an important factor.
For the first half I thought Belgium was the better team with, funnily enough, Fellaini their best player. Sure, Belgium has the attacking flair of Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne up front, but with Fellaini right behind them it meant United's controversial midfielder would be the one stop shop for all balls that went up from the Belgian defense, he'd stop most of the French interceptions and would be ever-present in the box for corners and crosses. And he's a hard one to stop Fellaini. The fact that an important part of United's support wants him out baffles me.
But the French defense was absolutely flawless. Wave after wave of Belgian attacks hit an extremely disciplined blue wall and they were left to resort to shots from a distance, with the notable exception of a shot from Alderweireld, 20 minutes in, 15 yards out, on the half turn, brilliantly blocked by Lloris.
So if at half time the prediction needle was leaning ever so slightly towards the red, 5 minutes from the break the French put it firmly in the blue with Umtiti's goal, which for some reason reminded me of another brilliant performance from a defender to put France in the final, 20 years ago. Yes, despite the huge attacking talent in both the 1998 team and this one, it would have to be a defender to get the goals. Somewhat normal, with the team being so evenly match, it's easier to lose sight of the odd defender that's come up for a corner. Umtiti's goal was not the most elaborate, but the execution was brilliant. And once it went in, in their heart of hearts, every player on the pitch knew it was over.
I was disappointed in a way that the Belgians didn't show just a bit more ambition. It's true, it's a lot harder to come back from 0-2 than 0-1 and Mbappe is a huge threat on the counter-attack with his speed, but it's very hard to break down a defense that good if you're not giving it your best. And the closest the Red Devils came to a goal in the second half was Witsel's shot from a distance in the 81st minute. In all honesty, I thought Fellaini's substitution, just before that, marked the capitulation of Roberto Martinez. It is true that Belgium have reached a stage that they can be happy with and they will be hailed as heroes at home, but conceding defeat before leaving the pitch is by no means the mark of a team capable of winning trophies.
It is also true that, in the end, the French beat Belgium physically. In the last 20 minutes of the game both Griezmann and Mbappe run riot through a depleted Belgian defense, both in numbers and in physical resources. There was a lot more space and a lot more French chances, and Les Bleus were unlucky not to score more. Well, unlucky or marred by the presence of Giroud, who seems so out of place in between the other two strikers and I cannot for the life of me understand how he can be in the starting 11 for this team. He's slow, can't take a man out by himself and doesn't even provide that much of a threat with his headers as he's supposed to. But it's hard to argue with a manager that keeps winning. Water carrier or not, Didi Deschamps is about to enter history as only the third man to win the World Cup both as a player and manager.
And because I want my review of the game to be as balanced as the game itself, I will end on a critique of Lukaku. Something I very rarely do, as he's one of our own, but there's something about Lukaku that doesn't quite convince me. It's not that he doesn't show up in the big games, or that he's got a heavy first touch; it's just that a lot of the time he looks disconnected from his team, somehow not on the same wavelength with the other attackers. Whenever you need a goal, it doesn't look like it's gonna come from Lukaku. That being said, however, he's got 4 in 5 in this World Cup and finished the season with 27 goals in 51 games for United, and I'll take that. After all, I'm the one who wasn't liking van Nistelrooy.