ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - For all the intricate planning, cagey tactics and chess-like choreography, the simplicity of football was again emphasized as France secured a place in the World Cup final from a basic set-piece.
Antoine Griezmann’s near-post corner was firmly glanced in by Samuel Umtiti as he beat Marouane Fellaini in the air to earn France a 1-0 win over Belgium on Tuesday and a place in Sunday’s final against Croatia or England.
The 51st-minute goal proved the uncomplicated difference in a match where a rich cast of exciting footballers held out the promise of exquisite skills, devastating movement and brilliant finishing.
“We have been strong at defending dead ball situations but today it was unfortunate. We got our (defensive) structures right at that corner but it was just a matter of centimeters,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said.
Kylian Mbappe’s run down the right inside the first 15 seconds suggested France planned to run the Belgians ragged but it was a fleeting illusion as France employed exactly the opposite tactics.
They sat back, sometimes dangerously deep on the edge of their penalty area, and let Belgium have the ball, opting instead for counter-attacking.
Eden Hazard with the ball at his feet on the edge of the area and Kevin de Bruyne dictating play are dangerous prospects and it was risky business for the French, but when they did get a chance to counter, they were frighteningly quick and equally dangerous.
It was like watching two heavyweight boxers eyeing each other out and waiting for the first to blink.
When the breakthrough came it was not from a flowing move or piece of individual skill but rather a standard situation – one that is still proving unusually decisive at the highest level of the game.
As football grows increasingly sophisticated with cutting-edge science and video technology, it was a vivid reminder of how simple a sport it still remains.
The goal gave the French license for a more expansive approach but not at the expense of keeping their defensive shape and they turned the screws on De Bruyne and Hazard by quickly closing them down.
France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris did make a world-class save to deny Toby Alderweireld in the first half but after the interval he only had to deal with Axel Witsel’s long-range thunderbolt as his team mates controlled the game.
Criticized for a slow start to the tournament, France seem to be peaking at exactly the right time and they might well look to keep it simple again in the final.
Editing by Ed Osmond