Samuel Umtiti headed France into the World Cup final in Saint Petersburg yesterday with a 1-0 win, consigning Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to another bitter disappointment.
France’s own supremely talented young squad will now aim to make amends for defeat on home soil to Portugal in the final of Euro 2016 in Sunday’s showpiece against England or Croatia.
“Finals have to be won because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago,” said France Coach Didier Deschamps.
In a World Cup replete with set-piece goals, a corner again proved decisive when Umtiti timed his run perfectly to meet Antoine Griezmann’s delivery six minutes into the second half.
“The difference sadly is a set play in a very close and tight game,” lamented Belgium boss Roberto Martinez.
“If you are going to have to lose such a match, which is bearable, it is the manner in which our players lost, pushing for everything, trying everything until the final whistle.”
While France march onto Moscow, Belgium must dwell on defeat for another four days before the third-place play-off on Saturday.
“We have to get rid of this feeling and finish on a high as that is nothing more than the players deserve — not to leave with a sour taste,” added Martinez. “Disappointed, of course, you can’t be anything else.”
Umtiti was the match winner and Captain Hugo Lloris made important saves at key moments.
Teenager Kylian Mbappe was in the mood from the off as he skipped past Jan Vertonghen with ease inside the first minute.
Thibaut Courtois rushed from his goal just in time to save Vertonghen again from Mbappe’s pace on 12 minutes, but it was Belgium who controlled possession early on.
Belgium’s Eden Hazard, who began his career with Lille in Ligue 1, pulled the first attempt of goal just beyond the far post.
The Chelsea forward’s next effort was arrowing into the top corner until it flicked off Raphael Varane’s head and deflected just over.
Lloris and Courtois played a huge part their sides’ quarter-final victories and it was only thanks to two of the best ‘keepers in the world that the game remained goalless at half-time.
First, Lloris flew to his right to turn behind Toby Alderweireld’s shot on the turn.
At the other end, Mbappe demonstrated the subtler side to his game to play in Benjamin Pavard, but Courtois used his massive 6 feet 5 inch (199 centimetre) frame to deny the Stuttgart full back his second goal of the tournament.
Deschamps’s men ended the opening period on top, but again Olivier Giroud looked short of confidence as the focal point of the French attack. Giroud has not scored in eight games and is yet to even have a shot on target in Russia.
Giroud did at least have a part to play in the decisive opener as, after his shot was deflected wide, Griezmann’s corner was flicked in at the near post by Umtiti.
Martinez introduced an extra attacker in Dries Mertens in an attempt to turn the tide and he nearly had an immediate impact as his cross was headed inches wide by Marouane Fellaini.
That was as close as Belgium came to taking the game to extra time, though, as Lloris comfortably parried a long-range piledriver from Axel Witsel.
But for Courtois, France’s margin of victory would have been even greater as he made saves from Griezmann and Corentin Tolisso in stoppage time.
For the generation of Hazard, De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, beating Brazil in the quarter-finals was meant to be the breakthrough on the way to winning a major tournament for the first time.
Instead, it proved to be another false dawn.