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Les Bleus inch closer to ultimate glory


France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris in action during the semifinal match against Belgium at the St Petersburg Stadium. – Gitika Talukdar
 ST PETERSBURG, July 11: They’re young, they’re brash and they’re collectively worth a billion dollars. The one thing missing for this French squad is an international title.

Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and France are about to get that chance. Les Bleus are headed to the World Cup final.

Samuel Umtiti clinched a 1-0 win over Belgium – and earned the approval of watching French President Emmanuel Macron in the VIP seats at St Petersburg Stadium – by scoring on a header off a corner kick in the 51st minute on Tuesday.

“Vive la France! Vive la Republique,” France forward Antoine Griezmann shouted during postgame celebrations.

Umtiti played his part in a strong defensive effort by the French, too, helping to shut out the highest-scoring team at the tournament and leaving Belgium’s golden generation of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to regret another missed opportunity at a major tournament.

“It’s me that scored,” Umtiti said, “but we all delivered a big game.”

France’s players danced on the field after the final whistle and their fans sang in the stands long past the end of the match, surrounded by yellow-clad security.

They certainly hope to keep the party going on Sunday in the final in Moscow. France – with an average age of 26 – will face either Croatia or England, who play on Wednesday at the Luzhniki Stadium in the Russian capital, and has a shot at redemption after losing its last two major finals – at the 2006 World Cup when Zinedine Zidane was sent off for a nasty head-butt and the 2016 European Championship on home soil.

“We’re immensely privileged to be in the World Cup final,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “It was so painful two years ago we have to savour it.”

Deschamps now has the chance to become the third person to win the World Cup as a player and a coach, after Germany great Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo. As France captain, Deschamps raised soccer’s most prized trophy in 1998.

Deschamps has faced some criticism for being too pragmatic and functional despite having a squad of superstars, but the organisation of the team was superb against an opponent that was largely restricted to only minor chances and denied on two occasions by France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. He dived to his right midway through the first half to claw away Toby Alderweireld’s shot, then got in front of Lukaku to punch away one of the many crosses sent in by Belgium in the final stages.

In a tournament dominated by goals from set pieces, France’s goal came off a corner when Griezmann curled in the ball from the right and Umtiti got in front of tall Belgium midfielder Marouane Fellaini to knock in his header at the near post.

Up in the corporate seats, president Macron reacted to the goal by shaking the hand of King Philippe of Belgium as FIFA president Gianni Infantino watched on between them.

“Unfortunately for us, the difference is just a dead-ball situation, a set play,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said. – AP

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