It was a battle of wits and tactics, fries and frites, Asterix and Tintin. France’s L’Equipe , the country’s main sports daily, had its own take on Tintin’s “Destination Moon” cover, with Didier Deschamps and Olivier Giroud approaching a space rocket fortified by their adversaries Thibaut Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
“The difference between Asterix and Tintin is like the difference between a Quentin Tarantino and a David Lynch film. One's witty entertainment, the other's great art. Asterix is charming and funny, but it's fairly one-dimensional; Tintin has this massive complexity of plot, symbolic register and theme. It deals with technology, history and politics,” author Tom McCarthy says.
Here, however, the simplicity and the pragmatic approach of France – the birthplace of the Gallic hero – proved effective as Deschamps’ men subdued their neighbour’s complex threat to secure a place in the World Cup final for the first time since 2006 – when a Zinedine Zidane head-butt had cost it dear.
Belgium’s Roberto Martinez, after a tactical masterpiece against Brazil, changed his formation once again with Moussa Dembele coming in a beefed up midfield with Nacer Chadli playing as the right back in a 4-3-3 system, without trying to compromise the fluidity of his front three, who created much trouble for Brazil in the quarterfinal.
The Red Devils continued playing their passing game while France sat deep, wary of the Belgian pace that has destroyed many an opponent. Happy to cede possession, the French relied on a smash-and-grab job and Kylian Mbappe almost delivered when he out-ran the much senior Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen in the 13th minute, but Courtois was alert enough to rush out and forestall the hazard.
Moments later, it was a chance at the other end with de Bruyne scurrying a pass – inside the box – to Eden Hazard, whose strike, however, was not up to the mark. Toby Alderweireld, too, drew a diving save from Hugo Lloris in the 22nd minute after his defence had failed to clear a corner.
Mbappe soon presented his senior teammate Giroud – still searching for his first goal in this FIFA World Cup – a chance to open his account after a lofted pass from Antoine Griezmann found the youngster in space on the right side of the Belgian box. His layover for Giroud was botched with the Chelsea man – in little hurry – failing to make the correct contact.
France, slowly wresting control of the match, was denied by the outstretched right leg of Courtois in the 39th minute after Benjamin Pavard surged into the box to get to the end of an Mbappe pass. Right at the conclusion of the first half, Romelu Lukaku – bottled up by Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti for much of match – had a moment of luck as the latter bungled a clearance from a de Bruyne cross, the Belgian attacker though was too perplexed to react.
The goal, which came in the 51st minute, arrived from an unlikely source with Umtiti outmuscling the monumental Marouane Fellaini to head in a Griezmann corner from the right. As the French grew in confidence, Mbappe – not all pace but guile too – laced a lovely backheel to Giroud, who was left frustrated by a last-gasp Dembele block.
As Belgium grappled to locate an opening in the well-worked and meticulous France defence, de Bruyne – the team’s soothing composer – lost a bit of his composure as he played a few passes askew, overeager to earn a goal for his team. With less than 10 minutes of regulation time left, Axel Witsel tried his luck with a ferocious right-footer from distance, but Lloris – with both his fists to the ball – ensured the well-being of his side.
From thereon it was all helter-skelter but France had its reserves and the composure to shut out Belgium – with which it shares a border, a language, a love for comic strips – and win this battle which was more than just a football match.
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