French defensive strength key to World Cup charge

Saint Petersburg, Wednesday

France have a much-vaunted attack but it is their defence marshalled by Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane that is impressing at the World Cup at both ends of the pitch.

Centre-back Umtiti scored the only goal in Tuesday’s semi-final to condemn Belgium’s “golden generation” to the third-place playoff in Russia.

For the third straight knockout match, France needed a game-changing goal from a defender despite boasting a fearsome attacking pair of 19-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappe and Euro 2016 Golden Boot winner Antoine Griezmann.

Right-back Benjamin Pavard’s stunning long-range effort from left-back Lucas Hernandez’s cross levelled Les Bleus’ last-16 tie with Argentina at 2-2 after Didier Deschamps’ side fell behind for the first time in the tournament.

Mbappe then took centre-stage in a thrilling 4-3 win on the only occasion the French defence have looked vulnerable in Russia.

Varane headed the opener in a 2-0 quarter-final win against Uruguay as Luis Suarez was shut out.

And Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku could not break through in Saint Petersburg as France registered a fourth clean sheet in six World Cup games to reach the final.

“The defence was excellent,” said Deschamps when asked if Tuesday’s performance was the best defensive display during his reign.

He added: “We had to defend deep, very deep at times because Belgium have technical quality. The idea was not to give them space because they’ve rolled over everyone (in reaching the semi-finals), even Brazil.”

On the few occasions the French defence has been breached, captain Hugo Lloris has come up with big saves against Uruguay and Belgium.

Deschamps’ cautious approach does not win admirers from all quarters.

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois declared the result “a shame for football”.

But the success of reaching the World Cup final after also playing in the Euro 2016 final is hard to argue with.          -AFP

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