July 11, 2018

Horse 2439 - France: Coq-A-Hoop

France 1 - Belgium 0
Umtiti 50'

I was asked before this match about who I thought would win. I'd already reached the conclusion well beforehand that because both Belgium and France had stores of talent right through their squads, that this match was too close to predict. What we saw was the expression of that sentiment writ large as both sides being full of titans and giants, cancelled each other out and just appeared to be normal sized. This match was always going to swing on the smallest of margins, to the point where even the one percenters were still too broad.

To say that this match was played hesitantly would be an understatement. Both France and Belgium knew that the jaws of defeat were wide open and should they be chewed up and swallowed, there was a throat like a black hole immediately behind them. Victory would send them to the World Cup Final and defeat would mean that one of these golden generations, could only hope for bronze at best.

Belgium sat just inside France's half in the opening period of play but even then, they could find any penetration into the box. Anything that was sent forward was immediately rejected like a baby refusing to eat carrot. A glimmer of hope came twelve minutes in when Hazard finally did manage to play a ball into the area and from about 13 yards from the goal line but jammed right to the edge of the 18 yard box, he fired a warning shot across the French keeper Lloris but it was to no avail.

France pumped the ball forward after the goal kick and for a brief period, they unlocked some sort of crazy-go-nuts party mode but when Matuidi blasted a rocket of a shot from 22 yards out, not only did he beat all defenders and the Belgian goalkeeper but he also beat the laws of physics and space and time, when the shot dipped and then curled upwards. I have no idea of what kind of Laminar Flow or Bernoulli Effects were on display but it should be a lesson for a first year university course, even though it failed at being a useful strike.

The match returned to its regular state of mutual tension and although both sides showed technical excellence, they also showed attacking impotence and it wasn't until the half hour that anything of import developed. Pavard made a break on a counter attack and found himself relatively unchallenged in Belgium's half. Although he was impeded by a defender, he found support and gave the deftest of touch passes to Giroud who was fouled and won a free kick.
They would again feature in the passage of play from the dead ball, when the free kick was sent about five yards to Pavard, who then lofted it into the box and found Giroud's head but that also wafted past the post.

Again the match returned to the tense deadlock and to be honest, I think that both sides appreciated the half time break as a break in concentration meant that they could divert their minds from the ominous scoreline of nil-nil. It was as though the World Cup was made of porcelain and they didn't want to drop it, for fear of having their dreams shattered before their eyes.

After the break though, the deadlock would be shattered when after a period of French pressing, they unexpectedly won a corner. Griezmann's delivery to the centre of the six yard box was more hopeful than good but Umtiti realising that this might be his only chance to do anything useful, turned the ball goalwards and suddenly France was coq-a-hoop.

At this point you would expect Belgium to find an extra gear but as they'd already been flat out for fifty minutes, there wasn't anything else that they could find. Fellaini spewed a shot which curled away from the goal in the 66th minute, De Bruyne tried his luck four minutes later, and Paul Pogba went on a run in the 78th minute but couldn't double France's slender lead.

Belgium's last real hope came when the devil's number 87 was showing on the clock when a De Bruyne free kick was masterfully sent into the six yard box but Eden Hazard's head had already moved forward. If this is a game of inches, then the number of inches that Belgium missed the opportunity to play in a World Cup Final was about four.
France was able to successfully run down the six minutes of added time by donkeying the ball deep into Belgium's corners and then playing equally donkeying short corners that barely left the corner circle. This was one of those cases where one goal was enough because the rest of the match had been one where both sides had been operating at close to 100% of their ability for the entire ninety-six minutes.

At this point you have to assume that France are the favourites to win the final. The gates of Bel did not prevail before the army of Gaul and I just don't think that either Croatia or England will be able to find a way through the French midfield much less their defence, unless they find something truly special. If football isn't coming home to England, then it had better start making bookings for a hotel on the Champs De Elysées because it will be up to its eyeballs in Pernod and smoking a Gitanes wrapped inside a Gauloises; the day after Bastille Day.

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