Samuel Umtiti headed France into the World Cup final as Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ came up just short in St Petersburg.
On a night when teenager Kylian Mbappe once again underlined his mouth-watering potential in breathtaking style, it was Barcelona central defender Umtiti who made the decisive intervention when he headed home Antoine Griezmann’s 51st-minute corner with the help of a touch off Marouane Fellaini to secure a single-goal win.
The 1998 winners will face either Croatia or England in Sunday’s final, leaving the Belgians to reflect on what might have been after Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku and company could not bring their considerable talents to bear in meaningful fashion.
Hugo Lloris was relieved to see Hazard drag his shot across goal three minutes after de Bruyne had opened up the French defence.
As play switched rapidly from end to end, the excellent Blaise Matuidi warmed Thibaut Courtois’s hands with a rising drive, but the impressive Raphael Varane had to get in a vital header to divert Hazard’s curling effort away from goal seconds later.
Lloris had to claw away defender Toby Alderweireld’s 22nd-minute shot on the turn with Belgium dominating, but Olivier Giroud flashed a header just wide of Courtois’s left post from Benjamin Pavard’s cross and then could not hit the target from Mbappe’s cushioned pass.
Full-back Pavard was denied by Courtois before Lukaku was presented with his first real opportunity, but headed harmlessly over from Axel Witsel’s inviting cross. When the opening goal arrived it did so at the other end.
Umtiti got to Griezmann’s corner marginally before Fellaini and saw his header flick off the midfielder as it flew into the net. France went for the kill and would have been 2-0 ahead had Moussa Dembele not got a block on Giroud’s shot after he had run onto Mbappe’s audacious back-heeled pass.
Fellaini headed just wide from substitute Dries Mertens’s cross with the newcomer making a significant impact. Lloris had to parry Witsel’s 81st-minute thunderbolt as Belgium threw everything they had left at them, but their best efforts proved in vain.