Semi Final 1 - France vs Belgium : Review and Ratings


Football fans from around the world, this one included, owe an apology to Didier Deschamps. Hardly ever rated by the neutrals, Deschamps has proved everyone wrong and is now just one win away from the World Cup glory. He can be the third player in the history of this beautiful game to have won the World Cup both as a player and a manager if his French team reaches the promised land this Sunday. France hasn't always been scintillating to watch in Russia 2018, but they know how to extract a result from a professional performance.

Seeing the attacking assets at the display, everyone anticipated this France v Belgium fixture to be a high scoring one where both teams would go for each other's throats. It certainly started that way, with France struggling to even get a touch of the ball for the first 20 minutes or so. Belgians looked sharper and hungrier than their French counterparts and almost took an early lead with a Eden Hazard cracking shot from the left-hand side. But the French held on and tried to weather the storm. Thomas Meunier’s suspension had forced Martinez to ditch his preferred 3-5-2 and revert to a 4-3-3 with Vertonghen and Chadli occupying the full-back positions. The lack of quality in fullbacks started to show as midway through the first half, France started coming back into the game. A sensational through ball from Paul Pogba almost set up Mbappe to a 1v1 with Courtois. As the half progressed, this semi-final started to look less like an end to end stuff and more like a boxing match where two heavyweights, both of them were ultra cautious and neither of them wanted to make a mistake.

With still 0-0 at HT, fans started wondering if it’s going be one of those nights where the two teams can only be separated by penalties. But World Cup semifinals have hardly been a dull affair. Only 1 out of 13 semifinals before had been scoreless after extra time and the first semi-final of 2018 wasn’t going to be one of the drab 0-0 types. Out of 159 goals scored so far in the tournament, 69 had come from set pieces. With both teams tactically apt at neutralizing opposition threats, the set piece seemed the only way to break the deadlock. Only 5 minutes had passed in the second half when Samuel Umtiti broke away from his marker Toby Alderweireld and outjumped Fellaini at the near post to score a superb header. Antoine Griezmann who was relatively quiet till that point in the game showed his class with that peach of a delivery for the goal. But the Belgian players didn’t panic at all. They had done comebacks before and they knew if they kept their cool, they can script another comeback tonight. Mousa Dembele had been struggling the entire game and Roberto Martinez thought it was about time to replace him with Napoli top scorer Dries Mertens. Mertens injected a new life in Belgium’s attack and almost delivered an instant impact when his beautiful cross from the right found Fellaini in the box, only for the Manchester United man to head it just wide. Mertens started combining with Hazard and De Bruyne to find those little pockets of space between the French midfield and defense. But the trio kept running into Varane who was immense tonight. The trio of Pogba, Matuidi and Kante performed their defensive duties to perfection and even broke out at every opportunity they got to release some pressure. Pogba could easily have had 4-5 assists tonight had Griezmann and Mbappe shot with more accuracy and power. Roberto Martinez threw in late substitutions of Carrasco and Batshuayi but in vain. France held on and as the final whistle blew, there were celebrations all around. The French had reached their first final in 12 years and the Belgian fairy tale of their golden generation ended on yet another semi-final defeat.

Player Ratings

France:

Hugo Lloris: (8/10) 

Made two world-class saves in either half from Alderweireld and Witsel shots. Was alert in the box as well, punching away dangerous crosses that came close to the 6-yard box.

Benjamin Pavard: (6/10) 

The French RB struggled to contain Eden Hazard all night. Huffed and puffed his way to the final whistle. Almost gave his side the lead against the run of play, only to be denied by the legs of Courtois.

Raphael Varane: (9/10) 

The Real Madrid man was immense at the back. Made many crucial blocks and interceptions. A complete leader in defense.

Samuel Umtiti: (8/10) 

Scored a brilliant glancing header which proved to be the winner. A bit shaky in the first half but his confidence grew after the goal.

Lucas Hernandez: (5/10) 

Was decent in defense but poor in attack. With KdB tucking infield, he had practically no one on the left-hand side. Still struggled to get involved in the final third and none of his 3 attempted crosses found their targets.

N’golo Kante: (9/10) 

75% of the earth is covered by water, rest is covered by N’Golo Kante. He was everywhere in St. Petersburg. Breaking the play, tackling, intercepting and at times even starting the counter attacks. Best CDM in the world for a reason.

Paul Pogba: (9/10) 

Probably the best French player on the field. A yet another complete display from Pogba in this World Cup. Could have had a handful of assists had French attackers had their shooting boots on. Created great chances, both from his passes and his ability to run with the ball on counter attacks. But Deschamps would be certainly be impressed by his defensive duties which he performed brilliantly. Was in the box at vital moments to make clearances when Belgium seemed to threat from crosses in the second half.

Blaise Matuidi: (7/10) 

Deployed as a left winger cum third midfielder in a lopsided 4-3-3 by Deschamps, he had a decent game. Looked solid at the back and also provided an option on the left-hand side. Unleashed an absolute cracker from 25 yards in the first half but it was straight at the keeper.

Kylian Mbappe: (8/10) 

Only 10 seconds had passed since the first whistle and Mbappe was off and running. Humiliated Vertonghen with a step over and his low cross almost found Griezmann. Defended with the team and kept his position when Belgium was dominating but always looked a threat with his Olympian pace on the break. His backheel for Giroud is certainly one of the best pieces of skill you will see at this tournament.

Antoine Griezmann: (7/10) 

Assisted Umtiti’s goal with a beautiful set piece delivery. Not the best match by his lofty standards as he took a while to get into the game but ran France’s attack in the second half.

Oliver Giroud: (6/10) 

Pressed defenders into mistakes early on but faded away in the second half. Not his day as he lacked decisiveness in attack. Had a brilliant chance to kill the game after receiving the ball from a mind-boggling Mbappe skill but just took that extra few seconds to shoot and Alderweireld blocked his shot.


Belgium:

Thibaut Courtois: (8/10) 

Was stretched to his limits by the French. Made some superb saves to deny the likes of Griezmann, Mbappe and even Pavard. Could have done nothing with Umtiti’s header.

Toby Alderweireld: (5/10) 

One of his worst performances in recent times. Caught on the ball in the first half by Giroud, then lost Umtiti in the corner from which the latter scored. Chose too many lateral passing options when the game demanded the ball to be played ahead.

Vincent Kompany :(8/10) 

Was at his usual best. Solid at the back, winning crucial headers and making match saving blocks. He was comfortable at playing out from the back as well. Mr. Dependable for Belgium.

Jan Vertonghen: (6/10) 

Was played out of position as a LB by Martinez. Struggled early on against Mbappe but steadied the ship later on. Didn’t provide much-attacking impetus as a fullback.

Nacer Chadli: (6/10) 

The man who came off the bench to score the winner in that 3-2 comeback win vs Japan struggled as a right back. His final ball lacked conviction even though he was getting into good positions.

Mousa Dembele: (3/10) 

Was decent at keeping the ball for Belgium but didn't provide anything going forward. Started struggling in the latter stages of the first half as France got hold of the game. Bullied by Pogba and Kante, he had to be subbed off at the hour mark.

Axel Witsel: (7/10) 

Wasn’t afraid to push forward to press the French. Always great at keeping the ball at spreading play out. He Had a good shot saved by Lloris in the second half.

Fellaini: (6/10) 

Martinez had set up his team in such a way that they utilized Fellaini correctly. Worked hard all night and even tracked back to win the ball at times for his teammates. Unlucky not to score from his header in the second half which just went wide of the post.

Kevin De Bruyne: (7/10) 

One of the heroes against Brazil, KdB tried too hard at times. Was energetic throughout but his final ball in the second half was constantly intercepted by Varane and co. His long range through ball for Lukaku was probably one of the best-attempted passes of this World Cup.

Eden Hazard: (9/10) 

Hazard did everything right on the night. Everything, except to score a goal. One can't blame him for that. Had many great shots but saved either by Lloris or by inhuman blocks of Varane and Umtiti. Best player on the pitch for Belgium by a country mile. Deserved to play in the final. With Ronaldo off to Juve, this was probably his audition night for Real Madrid.

Romelu Lukaku: (5/10) 

Was heavily marked by Varane and Umtiti. Apart from a promising spell in the second half, he was isolated for most parts and couldn’t impose himself on the game.

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