Imperious France have all the tools to deliver a second World Cup trophy
The Umtiti-Varane axis in defence, the discipline of Pogba in midfield, the searing pace and skill of Mbappe and a knack of scoring set-piece goals make Deschamps' side heavy favourites in Sunday's final, regardless of whether it's Croatia or England they face
There is an ominous sense of purpose about the France who have just booked their place in the country’s third World Cup in their last six attempts. Because this is France, the order and professionalism of their football, the way they have paced themselves though the tournament will be particularly praised and noted. Because this is France, the World Cup peaks seem all the higher because they are set against deep troughs.
Suffice to report that the new favourites to win Sunday’s World Cup final are nothing like the rabble who went on strike eight years ago in South Africa, or the gifted, but limp defending champions who wheezed home with one point from three matches from the 2002 World Cup.
Their dispatching of perhaps Belgium’s best-ever team in Saint Petersburg was utterly efficient. France absorbed early pressure, nullified Romelu Lukaku, the most menacing goalscorer of the so-called Belgian "Golden Generation", kept Eden Hazard largely in check, and either found Kevin de Bruyne on a night when his radar was slightly wonky, or hassled and restricted him enough that he had to reset his radar. And, just as significant, French players won many aerial duels against Marouane Fellaini.
For that, applause to Paul Pogba, who lent his authority to France’s defensive work and to the central defensive pairing who have through the past month provided a large body of evidence that whoever meets the French in Moscow on Sunday will need to be nimble, strong and ingenious to find a way past Samuel Umtiti and Rafa Varane. The Barcelona man, who scored the winning goal, glancing in an Antoine Griezmann corner early in the second half, and the Real Madrid commander of the back four, are beginning to look as authoritative as the Barca-Madrid pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos used to when Spain were winning all the major titles with defenders picked from either side of the Catalan-Castille rivalry.
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If it is to be the Croatia of Real’s Luka Modric and Barca’s Ivan Rakitic that France take on in the final, then the Croatian creators will certainly have to up their game; if England come through the second semi-final, then they will be aware that, however efficient they imagine they are from set-pieces, France also have a knack with them. Umtiti connected with his header ahead of the formidable Fellaini to put France ahead; Varane had scored the opening goal in the previous round, a header to crush Uruguayan hopes by connecting with a Griezmann free kick.
Hugo Lloris made an outstanding save to keep out a Toby Alderweireld drive. The goalkeeper’s form is strengthening as well, after a spectacular intervention against Uruguay.
All this will give Didier Deschamps, who is now 90 minutes from joining a very select group who have won a World Cup as a player and manager, reasons for optimism. He was the captain in 1998 for his country’s only triumph in the competition; he is the coach who can now trace a steady rise from the nadir of 2010, two different managers ago. Deschamps reached the quarter-final in Brazil in 2014 with a young, emerging Pogba and Griezmann in his squad; his France then finished with a silver medal two summers ago at the European Championship.
They were hosts then, and favourites. They will be favourites on Sunday unless England or Croatia produce something epoch-defining effort in the second semi-final.
France also have a footballer who may define an era to come. The 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe provided perhaps the most thrilling moment of a taut contest. His manoeuvre, combining a double backheel, from one foot to the other, and then a pass played behind him with the sole of his boot to Olivier Giroud was extraordinary, an innovation that really needs its own fresh term of description. He had also set up two the best first-half chances with passes to Giroud and Benjamin Pavard.
There were his habitual bursts of searing pace, too. And at the end, a teenager’s exuberant declaration of intent. “I don’t care about Ballons d’Or,” Mbappe said. “I just want the World Cup. I want to sleep in bed with that trophy.”
Updated: July 11, 2018 09:32 AM