Two years to the day after losing in the final of the 2016 European Championship on home soil, France booked their place in the final of the 2018 World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Belgium, narrowly besting their northern neighbors in a exciting, back-and-forth affair at the Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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Samuel Umtiti scored the game’s only goal, though 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe will undoubtedly be remembered as the star of 2018’s first semifinal for his constant threat on the counter-attack, and one moment of individual flair and brilliance against a packed-in Belgian defense.
Hugo Lloris began the battle of the goalkeepers when he denied one of four current of former Tottenham Hotspur teammates-turned-foe, thwarting the game’s first clear-cut scoring chance in the 22nd minute. Toby Alderweireld corralled the ball in the box after Nacer Chadli‘s corner kick near the penalty spot. Alderweireld turned on the ball and fired through a sea of bodies toward Lloris’ right-hand post, but the French captain went full-stretch to make a stunning save.
Lloris’ opposite number and London rival, Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, made a save nearly as impressive six minute before halftime, denying Benjamin Pavard who made a long, underlapping run into the penalty area and fired toward the far post from a tight angle with a reactive kick-save.
France needed just six second-half minutes to find the breakthrough, and it came as so many goals have done during this tournament: via a set piece (WATCH HERE). 69 of this World Cup’s 158 goals have been scored from set pieces. Antoine Griezmann served it up to the near post, where Marouane Fellaini was matched up against Umtiti, but it was the Barcelona defender who won the battle for positioning and rose highest to head past Courtois.
Lloris was forced to come up big again in the 81st minute, when Axel Witsel unloaded a low, swerving drive toward his left-hand post. Hit from all of 25 yards out, Witsel’s shot violently moved left to right, but Lloris got two hands behind it and punched it away to safety.
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France will now wait 24 hours to learn who they’ll face in Sunday’s final in Moscow. England are favorites against Croatia, but that has meant very little — as in, next to nothing — during this tournament.