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France have easily made it

Maswood Alam Khan | July 12, 2018 00:00:00

In the first semi-final of FIFA World Cup 2018 between France and Belgium at Saint Petersburg Stadium on July 10, Samuel Umtiti's 51st-minute header becomes the decisive factor that takes France into the World Cup final for the first time in 12 years. —Photo: Reuters

France have made it to the World Cup and may deservedly or fortuitously lift the trophy, a coveted prize of solid 18-carat gold, in Moscow on Sunday. Samuel Umtiti's header put France in the final with a 1-0 win over Belgium. A great piece of news for France and the French supporters!

But the match was not quite eventful. The stadium was almost silent like a cold stone. A small pocket of French supporters behind the goal to the left was exuberant. Their murmurs were there, but no roars anywhere else were heard erupted. Many seats were empty and the TV crews could not show a single spot that could evoke a smile on our face. There were no thunders, no growls, no drumbeats, no visible ecstasy. The game was grammatically okay and fair and there were not many fouls, nor was there any significant injury. Boring and emotionally shorn of exhilaration, the first half of the game ended in the nick of time more like a chess game. Wild fans tragically shied away from this world event.

Belgium could not make it. But if there were few teams which have made this World Cup hugely attractive and memorable Belgium is one of them. It is Belgium who knocked out Brazil to reach this semi-final. It is Belgium, nobody will ever forget, who mesmerised the world by their wonderful tenacity to come back from 2-0 down to 3-2 victory over Japan.

Why could not Belgium show their prowess last Wednesday when it was most required? They failed to produce the blitz on the start and they were visibly stifled. They looked worn down by the French when it came to striking a right balance between attack and defence. We imagined that Wednesday would be a famous night for Belgium with their stars like Eden Hazard. Alas! Belgium depended too much on Hazard and ace players like Kevin de Bruyne; they looked bleak and dishevelled.

Eden Hazard had started the game as a blazing comet, meandering and spiralling and wriggling his way past Benjamin Pavard, France's right back. The panorama was amazing that raised hope that Belgium is on the edge of entering history to reach the final. At that moment, it was Hazard's chance in a lifetime to claim for greatness. But, at the end of the day, he looked adrift, wandering without a radar, his sparkles extinguished. Belgium pathetically burned themselves out, deprived their nation of hope, not expending an iota of energy more than was strictly necessary. Lukaku failed to make any sort of an impression on the game. Woeful! It was perhaps an emotional breakdown which explains why the French goal failed to rejuvenate the players, the same set of players who resuscitated themselves from the point of death in the dying seconds at the end of their match with Japan just the other day.

There were, of course, a few occasions when Belgium showed admirable flashes of wizardry. Once France had taken the lead six minutes after the interval there were moments when Belgium threatened an equaliser. An equaliser at that time could bring Belgium back to their form we saw in their combat with Japan.

The stadium in St. Petersburg was not that noisy, but Paris was boisterous after the French victory, sending thousands out to celebrate on the Champs-Élysées.

Samuel Umtiti has entered history by scoring the decisive goal for France. Alright. But the real beauties of the French side were magnificently displayed by sterling players: Kylian Mbappé, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and N'GoloKanté. Whoever (England or Croatia) win in the other semi-final on Thursday they must face the ferocity of this young Kylian Mbappé and it would be a formidable job for them to outshine the brilliance of all these French jewels. Who would forget the moment of Kylian Mbappé's exquisite drag-back to present Olivier Giroud a chance to score later in the second half of the match on Wednesday?

France have reached the cusp of greatness, sleepwalking through its group, with single-goal victories against Australia and Peru, and an unbelievable goalless draw with Denmark. It was, however, in the quarterfinal, against Uruguay, where they sweated a bit and showed some styles but only thanks to a header and an egregious error from Fernando Muslera, the Uruguayan goalkeeper.

They were glimpses, there were fleeting moments, there were tantalising misses we enjoyed on Wednesday:

The moment Umtiti headed in at the near post from a corner by Griezmann to award France the winning goal. He outjumped Fellaini, a Belgian guy way taller than him. It seemed to my old eyes, as if, the ball just brushed Fellaini's bushy hairs with a lash of air. At that moment, I was fancying, would Belgium please take a U-turn the way they did against Japan?

The moment when Belgian attacker Eden Hazard, running like deadly cheetah, beat three players down the left before cutting into the box and ran the ball out of play. What a marvellous run!

The moment within the first ten seconds when Kylian Mbappé, the 19-year-old French sensation was burning Belgium's Jan Vertonghen away! WOW! It was an express train speeding past a bewildered commuter, Paul Pogba striding forward, Antoine Griezmann dancing through challenges!

There was again another moment that dropped the jaw when Mbappé, the French guerrilla, split Belgium's defence in two with a blink-of-an-eye pirouetting drag-back!

The most interesting semi-final would be held on Thursday night between England and Croatia. It would be the chance of a lifetime for England to reach the final. Probably never again would England get such a charmed run in a World Cup where they played with teams who are not deemed invincible. Tunisia was not a good team, Panama was even worse, Belgium a good team but beatable, Columbia not super-duper, Sweden poor. Croatia is a good team, but they are tired of penalty shoot-outs.


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