At the final whistle, the pocket of French supporters behind the goal to the far left, with their tricolours and memories of 1998, could celebrate another triumphant night. France had made it to the World Cup final and will surely fancy their chances of being reunited with that coveted piece of gold in Moscow on Sunday. The players in blue embraced while a Belgium side featuring 10 players from the Premier League were left to wonder whether the time will ever come for their golden generation.
The unfortunate truth is that it may not but, if nothing else, Belgium will leave Russia with a lot of good wishes bearing in mind Roberto Martínez’s side knocked out Brazil to reach this semi-final and have contributed so richly to what is widely being acclaimed as the most attractive World Cup in memory. Here, though, they could not build on an encouraging start and came up against a side with a superior blend, perhaps, when it comes to finding the right balance between attack and defence.
That will make France formidable opponents in Sunday’s final, no matter whether it is England or Croatia who provide the opposition, and amid all their euphoria it should also be noted they have already shown in this competition they can be more dangerous than was sometimes apparent in this victory.
Even so, there were still moments when it was very clear why the team Didier Deschamps has assembled should be regarded as the favourites to lift the trophy. Samuel Umtiti scored the decisive goal from a corner but the lingering memory might actually be Kylian Mbappé’s exquisite drag back to give Olivier Giroud another scoring chance later in the second half. If England can make it back to Moscow for the final what a challenge it will be to keep out this brilliant young player.
Here, too, was the compelling evidence that Gareth Southgate’s team should probably be relieved to have avoided this half of the draw. For Belgium, Kevin De Bruyne added his elegant touches and Eden Hazard shimmered with menace. France had the frightening pace of Mbappé and the subtle brilliance of Antoine Griezmann. Hazard looked absolutely determined to illuminate the semi-final. De Bruyne was the same and early on there was no doubt Belgium looked the more threatening side.
Equally, there was always the danger of the French counterattack and the overwhelming feeling whenever Mbappé was getting fully in his stride, with that astounding combination of speed, directness and raw power, that anything was possible.