Russia Review: Day Twenty-two

And then there were three.

As we reach the final week of Russia 2018 and this captivating, compelling and delightful tournament nears its conclusion, Day Twenty-two saw the number of contenders reduced even further on another night of high drama and absorbing action.

But with Croatia and England set to battle it out for a place in Moscow’s final on Day Twenty-three, who would be the first to secure their spot?

With some of the world’s greatest starts on show, it’s over to you, St Petersburg…

New favourites France frustrate Belgium to confirm date with destiny

France reached the World Cup final for the third time in twenty years as Samuel Umtiti’s second half header earned them a narrow win over neighbours Belgium.

It is also Les Bleus’ second successive major final, having successfully navigated the route through to their showpiece Paris finale two years ago in the European Championships – a tournament they ultimately lost in heartbreaking fashion to Portugal.

Didier Deschamps’ team have proved over the past three weeks however that they have laid their demons of 2016 to rest, and are now full-steam ahead as they bid to lift football’s biggest prize for only the second time.

In St Petersburg they faced a Belgium side bouncing with confidence after their hugely impressive win against tournament favourites Brazil, but it was another test the 1998 winners passed with flying colours as they kept the imperious threats of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard et al at arm’s length.

Heading into what was Russia 2018’s first semi-final, this was the match-up being billed as the big one.

Many fans and pundits across the globe had pinpointed this fixture as the final four clash that would give us our ultimate winner, with many feeling the same way about that famous Brazil-Germany tie four years prior.

But this battle was a little less one-sided and more tense, as both teams tried to assert their authority on proceedings early on.

And it was France who took the bull by the horns right away. There had been much talk about teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe during the build-up to this one, and eager to continue his fine form, the 19-year-old was causing problems within twenty seconds for Belgium.

The PSG forward gave the Red Devils an early fright as he unleashed that blistering pace we’ve become accustomed to down the right hand side before rolling the ball across the box, but the Belgians were alert enough to deal with the threat – however that was just the start of Mbappe’s evening, and an early warning sign to the opposition.

As both sets of players traded spells of possession, Mbappe was the one bringing about the ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s from the crowd, as he was nearly played in by Paul Pogba.

Antoine Griezmann, who has almost surprisingly been usurped by the teenager as France’s leading light at this World Cup, picked up the ball in his own half and started a counter attack with just under a quarter of an hour gone.

The Atletico Madrid star picked out Pogba, but there was just a little too much on his through ball as even the pace of Mbappe couldn’t get on the end of it before Thibaut Courtois snuffed out the danger.

Belgium were holding firm and just about dealing with the threat of Mbappe, and grew in confidence themselves in the knowledge that they could cause problems themselves with their array of attacking talent.

One of a number of England-based stars in Roberto Martinez’ ranks is captain Eden Hazard, and the Chelsea man found himself with the best of the early chances just minutes later.

In an attempt to play it out from the back, France inadvertently lost possession with a Hugo Lloris ball which was won by the head of Mousa Dembele.

It fell kindly for De Bruyne, who flicked it into the area for his ex-Chelsea teammate, but the chance evaporated into thin air when Hazard dragged the shot across goal and wide with his weaker left-foot, but as Mbappe had done to Belgium, Hazard was letting the French know that he and his team were there.

And he could have done more than that moments after, when France had Raphael Varane to thank for keeping them level.

Picking it up on the left, Hazard skinned the hapless Benjamin Pavard and sent a vicious curling effort towards goal from the corner of the box, but the Real Madrid defender got up well to flick the ball over and away for a corner.

All of a sudden the tables had turned, and it was Belgium on the front foot as Hazard seemed to be the man leading his side’s charge.

With a quarter of the game gone, Lloris was then forced into the game’s first real save, and it was to deny one of his Tottenham allies.

The first corner of the match was whipped in and dropped at the feet of Marouane Fellaini. France were probably thankful it wasn’t met by the big man’s head, but nonetheless, the Manchester United midfielder touched the ball to Toby Alderweireld, who spun and sent a left-footed shot towards the corner, only to be denied by a brilliant Lloris stop.

In truth, you could fill a shortlist for save of the tournament purely with stops from the French captain, and this was another for him to add to his highlights reel as he quickly dived away to his right and got two hands to Alderweireld’s effort, turning it round the post.

Both sides continued to press and create openings, and it was Olivier Giroud, leading the line for France, who was the next to be guilty of wasting opportunities.

First, the Chelsea target man glanced a header wide from a Pavard cross, and then he failed to convert the best chance of the half – Griezmann picked out Mbappe wide right, and the teenager played a wonderful first-time cross into the box, but Giroud cracked under pressure from Alderweireld and could only fumble the chance wide.

Giroud is yet to register a shot on target during the competition which is pretty astonishing for a striker in a team with so much attacking flair, but Griezmann and Mbappe continued to show exactly why it was they who Deschamps relies so heavily on to provide the spark.

After picking up the ball in his own half, the former led a French counter with a mazy run but could only drag a poor effort wide when he may have been better served picking out a fellow blue shirt, and Mbappe then created the final chance of note as he showed great awareness to flick a pass through to the onrushing Pavard, but despite being one-on-one, the full-back couldn’t beat Courtois who saved well.

With neither side able to take their numerous chances in a pulsating opening 45 minutes, it seemed only a matter of time before the deadlock was finally broken.

And that proved to be the case, as with just over five minutes gone following the restart, France were ahead.

Griezmann, who has been heavily involved in a number of France’s goals throughout the tournament, was the architect, although this time it was one of his more simpler assists.

Les Bleus’ poster boy curled a dangerous corner in towards the near post, and powering his way past the imposing figure of Fellaini was Umtiti, who forcefully headed the ball beyond Courtois who couldn’t do enough to keep it out.

With one movement, Umtiti had gone from zero – having conceded a sloppy and bizarre penalty in his side’s opener against Australia three weeks ago – to hero, after nudging France into the driver’s seat for a place in the final.

As the French celebrated in their numbers, Belgium were left stunned, and struggled to respond as their opponents nearly extended their lead moments later.

An awe-inspiring move from France saw the returning Blaise Matuidi flick a ball to Mbappe, and the youngster showed he lacks no confidence with an industrious backheel through to Giroud, but Dembele made a brilliant – and huge – block to keep Belgium in the game.

Roberto Martinez’ men needed something from somewhere, and in response to what he was witnessing, the Spaniard sent on Dries Mertens for Dembele in a show of intent.

And the Napoli forward made an immediate impact. Hitting the byline, he sent in a cross which France struggled to deal with. It eventually fell to De Bruyne in the area, but the usually so reliant Manchester City magician failed to connect properly under pressure from his Premier League rival Pogba and Lloris was able to easily gather.

But Mertens was at the heart of Belgium’s chance creation again soon after, as he delivered another dangerous ball into the box, but it was to no avail once more as this time Fellaini headed wide.

Having already put so much into the game and sitting pretty with the lead, France were content to soak up whatever pressure the Belgians could throw at them from that point on.

The Red Devils struggled to break through a stubborn back line, and the only real test Lloris faced in the closing stages was a swerving 25 yard strike from Witsel which was straight into his midriff.

As the clock ticked over to 90 minutes, De Bruyne tried to provide one final piece of inspiration in typical KDB-style, but his superb floated ball into the box was inches away from Lukaku, who had evaded the French defenders, and it drifted harmlessly behind.

The board went up to signal an additional six minutes, but France retained the composure they had shown throughout the course of the evening and could have even wrapped it up themselves.

Having run from wide, Griezmann fired a low right-foot shot comfortably at Courtois, and then Tolisso had the golden chance to crown it in the final minute as he was found in acres of space just yards from goal, but Courtois saved well – which ultimately resulted in a France corner.

Time was up for Belgium, and as referee Cunha’s whistle met his lips, the party started as France celebrated wildly whilst their opponents were left floored in complete and utter despair.

2018 marks Belgium’s second appearance in the World Cup semi-finals, and should they secure third place on Saturday, this summer will go down as their best ever performance.

But that will be little consolation to the team of Red Devils and their supporters, as the belief was there that this was their time, and best opportunity to lift their inaugural international trophy.

As for France, they go into Sunday’s showpiece final as favourites regardless of who their opponents may be.

But in order to lift football’s most iconic trophy for a second time, Les Bleus will need to go again one last time – to prove that the ghost of Euro 2016 are well and truly behind them, by putting on a show that will go down in French folklore at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Player of the Day – Kylian Mbappé (France)

Last time out, Day Twenty-one saw us name our first ever two-time Player of the Day, and we marvelled at the fact that a goalkeeper managed to outshine Russia 2018’s abundance of attacking brilliance to achieve the feat.

But on Day Twenty-two, it is one of those offensive talents who becomes our second two-time winner, and it is very much a star in the making – which is frightening to say, considering how good he already is.

Kylian Mbappe announced himself to the global stage unexpectedly in 2017 with some stunning Champions League performances in a run that saw his AS Monaco side reach the semi-finals.

The boy wonder scored home and away in his Ligue 1 team’s victories against Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, and also notched up his club’s solitary goal in their last four defeat to Juventus.

But that was just the beginning for Mbappe, and certain similarities are beginning to appear between this World Cup and that European club competition for the youngster.

The 19-year-old seems to come alive in knockout football, and has turned on the style for France in the latter stages of Russia 2018 – he put in one of the best individual displays of the tournament in their last 16 win against Argentina, and proved again when facing up to the Belgians that he can deliver under pressure and on the biggest stage of all by bamboozling defenders with his pace, tricks and fancy flicks.

Naturally now, the next step for Mbappe is to lead his national side to eternal glory by claiming their second World Cup honour on Sunday evening – something even the likes of legendary figures Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have failed to do during their illustrious and record-breaking careers.

Beyond this summer, speculation linking Mbappe with a megabucks move to Real Madrid is rife, and in light of one of the all-time great Galacticos, the previously mentioned Ronaldo, moving on from the European champions, rumours have only escalated.

But when you take into account this boy’s pace, power, technical ability et al, it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to suggest that he really could go all the way in his career and possibly emulate what his potential predecessor at the Bernabeu has over the last ten years.

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