St Petersburg: Almost 20 years to the day since France beat Brazil 3-0 in Paris to win their first and only World Cup, the man who captained a team that united a nation moved to within 90 minutes of getting his hands on the trophy again. Triumphant as a player back in 1998, Didier Deschamps now has the opportunity to repeat that feat as a manager, following in the footsteps of Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
That narrative belongs to the past after Deschamps got everything right with the way that he set up his side against Belgium, who played right into France’s hands.
Belgium finished the game with just about every attacking player that Martinez could call upon on the pitch and still never looked like penetrating that wall of blue shirts. Outstanding defensively, epitomised by the performances of the impressive Raphael Varane and the indefatigable N’Golo Kante, France frustrated the life out of the Belgians.
This was their fourth clean sheet in six World Cup matches — only Argentina have scored against them in open play — yet it is the sprinkling of stardust at the other end of the pitch that makes them such a formidable package. Kylian Mbappe, who was not born when one million people lined the Champs Elysees in 1998 to celebrate the achievement of Aime Jacquet’s team, showed yet again why he is the world’s most exciting teenager with a ball at his feet. Mbappe, quite simply, was unplayable at times.
There is something almost freakish about his pace — defenders look as though they are walking when Mbappe is running — and Belgium were petrified whenever he got on the ball. With only 10 seconds gone, Mbappe had already torn past two Belgians and that dash down the France right set the tone.
There was one moment that evoked memories of that iconic Diego Maradona photo taken at the 1982 World Cup, when six Belgians were pictured confronting the Argentine as he had the ball at his feet. Mbappe is not Maradona — not yet, anyway — but at the age of 19 he already intimidates and terrifies opponents.
As Mbappe stood on the edge of the area, four Belgium players were drawn towards him, leaving so much space for Benjamin Pavard, the right-back, to run in behind. Mbappe timed the pass perfectly and only an instinctive save from Thibaut Courtois, with his right boot, prevented France from taking the lead.
One passage of play in the first half illustrated how effective that approach can be. Kante seized the ball deep in the France half and fed Paul Pogba, whose lovely step over took him away from Mousa Dembele. Mbappe set off on a run between Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany, and Pogba’s slide-rule pass came so close to finding him.
It is an option that was simply not there for France two years ago, when they lost to Portugal in the European Championship final
If there is one weakness, it is in the centre forward position, where Olivier Giroud has now played 497 minutes at the World Cup without scoring. Deschamps would argue that his decision to bring Giroud back into the team, after an unconvincing win over Australia in the opening match that drew criticism back home, has given them more balance up front, which is probably true.
At the same time, though, the Chelsea striker really should have taken one of the two good chances that Mbappe — who else? — set up for him.
Samuel Umtiti was not so forgiving when he met Antoine Griezmann’s inswinging corner early in the second half, heading home the goal that ended up being the defining moment in a game that played out exactly how Deschamps had hoped.
The challenge for the manager now is to finish the job by writing his name into the history books on Sunday.