MOSCOW — France beat Belgium 1-0 in their World Cup semifinal on Tuesday, using a Samuel Umtiti set-piece goal off a corner kick to beat the Belgians and send France to Sunday’s World Cup final.
Both teams had ample chances in a wide-open first half, with Hugo Lloris coming up especially big on a Toby Alderweireld chance that appeared goal-bound to keep Belgium off the board. Lloris was strong when called upon in the second half, after Umtiti’s header had tilted the scales in France’s favor, and Les Bleus will go in search of their second title on Sunday in Moscow against either England or Croatia.
Here are my three thoughts on their semifinal triumph:
• THE SET-PIECE WORLD CUP CONTINUES
On a night when there was little separating the two teams, set-piece execution in front of the goal once again made the difference. Umtiti’s second-half goal on a French corner kick put France in Sunday’s World Cup final. After all the back-and-forth play during the game, it can seem cruel that a simple set piece would be the decider, but give France credit. The French earned the chance and executed it perfectly, with Umtiti outjumping Marouane Fellaini to make the connection on the near-post header.
Belgium ultimately didn’t do enough in the game to produce its own goal, and France is deservedly in its third final going back to 1998.
• N’GOLO KANTÉ MAY BE THE PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT
Usually tournament awards are given to the players who are the most influential attackers or the leading goal scorer—and that’s why the candidates we have been hearing until this point are Luka Modric, Eden Hazard and Harry Kane. But the voters should consider choosing Kanté instead.
The Chelsea defensive midfielder has covered immense amounts of ground in this World Cup, but it’s not just about distance run. Wherever Kanté goes, he is influential, a Hoover vacuum making interceptions and preventing attacking moves from happening. Then, he’s often terrific at not just winning balls, but also sending France’s attack in the other direction quickly.
Given how the voting usually goes, he almost surely won’t win the player of the tournament award, but he deserves more consideration, especially if France lifts the trophy on Sunday.
• FRANCE’S VERSATILITY KEY IN RUN TO THE FINAL
There’s a tendency to view Didier Deschamps as an overly conservative coach, one who keeps his immensely talented players reined in too much. But he has made an extremely useful change during the tournament—moving Olivier Giroud into the starting lineup, where he hasn’t scored a goal but has had an impact setting up Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé—and he has let Paul Pogba be more like himself rather than the too-withdrawn player that we have seen at Manchester United.
France was relentless on the attack in its 4-3 win against Argentina, but it has now revealed a grit in wins against Uruguay and Belgium that many were not sure existed. That ability to win in different ways is always key in a long tournament, and not every squad has it.
Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.