Samuel Umtiti’s header in the 51st minute and massive play in central defense powered France to its first World Cup final appearance in 12 years as Les Bleus stifled Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday in St. Petersburg in the first of the two semifinals.
It will be the third final for France, which won it all at home in 1998 and lost to Italy on penalties in 2006. It is also the fifth major tournament final in the last 20 years for Les Bleus, who won the 2000 European Championship and reached the final two years ago as hosts.
Manager Didier Deschamps moved one step closer to being the third person along with German legend Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo to win the World Cup as both player and manager, having served as the captain of the 1998 squad and overhauling a talented yet mercurial side since his appointment in 2012.
His young charges — the second-youngest of the 32 sides in Russia — have matured with each passing match, working as a cohesive unit since Deschamps’ tactical switch to introduce Olivier Giroud as a target forward and switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 formation late in France’s lethargic win over Australia to open play in Russia.
It was a crushing end for Belgium’s golden generation, which was the only team to have won all five of its matches in Russia before being denied its first World Cup final. Roberto Martinez’s team was unable to provide consistent service to striker Romelu Lukaku, as France’s central defense pairing of Umtiti and Raphael Varane did the heavy lifting but got plenty of help from everyone as stars Giroud and Paul Pogba tracked back into their own penalty area.
France awaits the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Croatia and England for Sunday’s final in Moscow and Luzhniki Stadium. Belgium will remain in St. Petersburg to face the loser of that contest Saturday for third.
Each team made one change from their quarterfinal starting lineups. Martinez continued his bold personnel and tactical approach for Belgium, introducing Moussa Dembele as his replacement for the suspended Thomas Meunier and pushing Jan Vertonghen wide left in a four-man back.
Deschamps restored Blaise Matuidi back to central midfield after he served a one-match ban for yellow cards and dropped Corentin Tolisso.
The first 10 minutes of the match played out predictably of two teams in the first of the two World Cup semifinals — cagey and conservative. Belgium had a long spell of possession in that span, kicking the ball around to see how France’s defense would stretch or, in this case, scale back into two banks.
Les Bleus, though, showed what they were capable of through the counter, with Pogba sending a through ball just beyond the haring Kylian Mbappe as Thibaut Courtois slid out to the top of the penalty area to intervene.
The first real scoring chance of the match came to Eden Hazard on the stroke of the quarter-hour when he fizzed a shot wide of the right post after a smart flick into the penalty area on the left by Kevin De Bruyne.
Matuidi arrowed a 20-yard shot right at Courtois in the 18th minute, but Belgium then started a wave of attack on France. Varane made a vital headed clearance on a cross by Hazard intended for Marouane Fellaini, flicking it just over the cross bar to concede a corner Lloris aggressively punched away.
A second corner given in similar circumstances nearly resulted in Belgium taking the lead on 22 minutes, but Lloris delivered his second world-class save in as many matches, diving at full stretch to his right to push Tottenham Hotspur club teammate Toby Alderweireld’s shot from 15 yards around the right post.
France’s central defenders remained busy, with Umtiti making a vital clearance of a low cross by De Bruyne on the left with Lukaku lurking at the far post in the 28th minute.
Giroud put a stooping header wide of the right post on 31 minutes after a cross by Benjamin Pavard. Two minutes later, Antoine Griezmann should have done better from 20 yards unchallenged to the left of the D after stepping around Axel Witsel but blazed his right-footed attempt over the bar.
Les Bleus were now in the ascendancy, with Giroud failing to find his feet to cleanly connect on a cross from Mbappe and Griezmann dragging a left-footed shot wide of the right post from 20 yards. In the 40th minute, they had their best scoring opportunity, with Mbappe slipping Pavard through on the right, but Courtois got his right foot to the sharp-angled shot and sent it wide of the left post.
Pogba drew a foul on Dembele in a dangerous area 25 yards out on the right, but Griezmann smacked his free kick into Belgium’s four-man wall.
The start of the second half resembled the first, with the Red Devils on the front foot. There was some Manchester United on Manchester United crime in the 49th minute when Pogba cleared out a looping cross intended for Fellaini in the penalty area. De Bruyne nearly picked out Lukaku, but the pass was intercepted.
Kompany did well to block Giroud’s spin-and-shoot attempt from 15 yards, but France took the lead on the corner the Belgium defender conceded on that play. Umtiti flashed to the near post, beating Fellaini and meeting Griezmann’s in-swinger from the right with a glancing header from inside the six-yard box.
It was Umtiti’s third goal in 24 international appearances and first in a competitive match. It was also Griezmann’s second assist in Russia to go with his three goals.
Les Bleus kept their foot on the accelerator as Matuidi drew a foul on Dembele just outside the left elbow of the penalty area, but Griezman’s left-footed cross went unanswered. Mbappe launched another counter down the right flank and picked out Matuidi in the middle, but his shot was blocked by Alderweireld.
France should have made it 2-0 in the 57th minute, but a last-gasp block by Dembele on a shot by Giroud from six yards after an outrageous backheel by Mbappe kept Belgium in the contest, though just barely.
Martinez’s experiment with Dembele ended on the hour as he introduced Dries Mertens and dropped De Bruyne into a playmaking pocket in the middle. Belgium created a turnover in the France final third, but Pogba flew into the area to prevent De Bruyne from getting a clean shot on a poor headed clearance attempt by Varane after Mertens sent a cross in from the right.
Nacer Chadli did well to earn a corner on the right in the 63rd minute, but his low out-swinger failed to threaten, and Hazard was forced into a professional foul on Matuidi and earned the first yellow card of the contest from referee Andres Cunha.
Mertens may have mishit a cross from the right in the 65th minute, but it caught Lloris in two minds as he was forced to punch it away. Mertens quickly sent in another effort that Fellaini headed downward from 12 yards wide of the right post as it looked like another United training ground practice drill with Pogba in coverage.
Mbappe began another counter in the 67th minute, skipping out of De Bruyne’s tackle and taking off down the right side before picking out Griezmann with a cross-pitch pass. He laid it off for Giroud, but the target striker was anything but as he went well over the bar from 20 yards.
Belgium began to feel the urgency of the moment as both Mertens and Vertonghen had crosses go begging, with Pogba eager to use his 6-foot-3 frame to help the clearing cause.
Alderweireld was booked in the 70th minute with another professional foul to blunt a France counter, with Belgium continuing to try and play narrow first before trying wide. Les Bleus were now content to sit back and soak up Belgium’s pressure, though Witsel was fortunate not to be added to the bookings list after cutting down Griezmann from behind to start the final quarter-hour.
De Bryune found a small pocket of space on a pass from Hazard, but the Man City star could not get over the ball and send his left-footed shot high and wide in the 76th minute.
Martinez made his second substitution in the 80th minute, sacrificing Fellaini for Yannick Carrasco after Pogba’s flick-on of Griezmann’s free kick went over the bar.
Cunha waved play on despite Giroud body-blocking Hazard just above the penalty area right in front of him, not even giving Belgium a play-on advantage. Hazard tried to storm into the penalty area after rounding Pogba but was taken off the ball by Varane.
The ball, though, rolled to Witsel, who lashed a slicing shot from 25 yards Lloris strongly punched clear. Play had to be stopped momentarily after Hazard and Matuidi had a crunching collision that Matuidi got the worse off as Hazard’s hips hit Matuidi’s ribs.
Deschamps finally made his first swap in the 85th minute, bringing in Steven N’Zonzi for Giroud. Matuidi never fully recovered from his collision with Hazard and signaled to come off, dropping to the pitch to make sure play was stopped before Tolisso entered in the 86th minute.
Chadli sent in a dangerous cross from the right in the 87th minute France cleared. Kante was booked for a foul on Hazard, who worked hard to draw the infraction on his Chelsea teammate. De Bruyne stood over it from 30 yards on the left and looped it into the six-yard area where it was deflected by N’Zonzi and Varane before getting cleared.
The ball recycled back to De Bruyne, whose ball over the top for Lukaku was just beyond the striker’s reach after it had cleared Umtiti. The fourth official signaled six minutes of stoppage time, which Pogba started by drawing a foul on Chadli deep in Belgium’s end.
Martinez’s final roll of the dice came with Michy Batshuayi entering for Chadli. Mbappe was given a yellow card for egregiously time-wasting. A turnover gave France a chance to kill off the match as Pogba sent a lateral pass to Griezmann, but Courtois got down quickly to smother his shot from the top of the penalty area.
Mbappe then had a chance to take a shot, but Kompany dispossessed him in a 1-on-1 situation to start another Belgium counter. A cross for Lukaku went unanswered, and Vertonghen picked up a yellow for fouling Mbappe. France continued to seal Belgium out of its final third and spent almost as much time in attack.
Courtois again kept it a one-goal game in the 96th minute, stabbing Tolisso’s right-footed shot around the right post and conceding a corner. Pogba did well to bleed the final few seconds off the match, and shortly after losing it by the flag, Cunha blew his whistle to send Les Bleus back to the World Cup final for the first time in 12 years.