France beat Belgium 1-0 in the first semi-final of the 2018 World Cup at the St Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday to book their place in the final.
A Samuel Umtiti goal in the second half was enough for Les Bleus to eliminate the Red Devils in a tense encounter that saw both teams create a number of opportunities over the course of 96 pulsating minutes.
Here are the major talking points from the game.
#1 Belgium’s lopsided formation sees them create chances early
With Thomas Meunier suspended after picking up one yellow card too many, Roberto Martinez had to make changes to the starting lineup and Belgium had to adapt. In came Nacer Chadli on the right but he was deployed in a right wing-back role rather than a right-back role.
Belgium still persisted with a 3-4-3 formation but Jan Vertonghen was still playing more as a left-back. It was a back-four when they lost possession with Chadli slotting back in the right-back slot while Mousa Dembele remained in midfield out on the left
This allowed Chadli to spread Belgium’s attack and he was heavily involved in the opening stages of the match (his crossing skills also came in handy on corners). What worked in Belgium’s favour was that France did not exploit that flank while Belgium also had more possession.
With Blaise Matuidi playing in a midfield role and Antoine Griezmnn drifting towards the centre, the only outlet Les Bleus had on the left was left-back Lucas Hernandez. As a result, Belgium dominated proceedings, creating chances and asking many questions of Hugo Lloris and the French defence
2 Marouane Fellaini plays in a variety of roles with mixed results
Not many managers would start Marouane Fellaini in a World Cup semi-final when they have loads of more talented players on the ball but Roberto Martinez needed Fellaini to fill in for many positions in different scenarios and it worked out well.
Fellaini initially started in the middle of the three-man midfield with Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembele on either side but he was soon allowed to go forward and join the attacking trio in the final third.
There were times when he made a run into the box to play as a target man and there were occasions when he played in a no.10 role when Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne drifted wide.
Off the ball, Fellaini could even be seen dropping back in a deep defensive role, sometimes slotting in between central defenders Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany to help combat Olivier Giroud.
He was even seen marking Paul Pogba at times, stopping France from mounting any attacks before they even began. But the Frenchman, who marked him in return, also got the better of him in attack at times.
It only begged the question: how long could he keep this up? That was answered in the second half.
It was Fellaini that lost Samuel Umtiti during a corner kick and the Barcelona defender beat him in the air to head home the cross to give France the lead.
Moreover, his free-roaming role did not give Belgium any structure in the second half and it seemed like they were freewheeling after going 1-0 down. In the end, he was playing out wide to put in crosses (!) and Martinez had to replace him with Carrasco with 10 minutes to go.
#3 Dembele gamble fails miserably, Mertens not given enough time
The other Premier League midfielder who was tasked with giving Belgium solidity in midfield was Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Mousa Dembele. But it is safe to say that this was a plan that backfired for Roberto Martinez.
Dembele was never really in the game and it was a shock to many how he escaped the referee’s punishment time and again for fouls, some of which were quite cynical. Any other referee would have booked him in the first half itself.
Played out on the left, he was hardly involved in attack and it was only Eden Hazard’s brilliance that saw him make an impact on the left. In defence, Dembele was caught out of position or beaten quite often, leading to fouls.
Once they went 1-0 down, Martinez quickly hooked him off and introduced Dries Mertens – who nearly grabbed an assist as soon as he came on with a good cross into the box.
The Napoli man was quite busy and had he been given more time in the game he may have been able to make an impact with De Bruyne also dropping to his preferred deeper role.
#4 France effectively shut down Belgian attack
Although it was quite an open game with plenty of chances created, it was France who managed to keep Belgium at bay with some good man-marking and defending in numbers.
Romelu Lukaku was invisible throughout the game and was barely involved with both Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti dealing with him with considerable ease.
Without a creative force in midfield, both Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne had to drop deep to bring the ball into the final third. That made them easy pickings for N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba to assert their physical dominance in midfield.
While their brilliance did allow them to make inroads, they couldn’t get past the final wall of defenders to trouble Hugo Lloris.
And when Belgium did manage to get shots on target, Lloris was on hand to make some fine saves to deny the Red Devils a sniff on goal.
Even after Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco came on, Deschamps responded by bringing on Steven Nzonzi to help protect the slender lead.
And to top it all off, it was Umtiti’s goal from a France corner that made the difference in the end.
5 France must get Olivier Giroud firing to win the final
Olivier Giroud was quite wasteful in the semi-final and should have got on the scoresheet to ease the pressure on France. In all, the Chelsea striker had six shots on goal – none of which were on target.
In a semi-final where chances are usually so hard to come by, Giroud had plenty. But he had left his scoring boots at home and it was frustrating for France to see him make a mess of many combination plays.
Twice Kylian Mbappe set him up with superb passes – one when he broke through the offside trap to lay it on a plate and another when he made a turn and back-heeled it into his path for a shot on goal.
When France did not use him at the start of the tournament, their attack laboured until he came on. With his back to goal, he is still one of the best in the business.
But to go an entire tournament and reach the final without a single shot on target when you are the man leading the attack is a poor reflection of what could have been had Giroud been a little more clinical.