ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — They talked about the attacking for two days before France played Belgium in a World Cup semifinal here, about Kylian Mbappé’s speed and Eden Hazard’s dribbling and Antoine Griezmann’s style and Kevin De Bruyne’s playmaking.
But France is back in the World Cup because of the simplest of things: defender Samuel Umtiti lost his marker, a corner kick found his forehead, and he turned the ball into the net for the only goal in France’s 1-0 victory over Belgium.
The goal, in the 51st minute, sent France to its first World Cup final since 2006, and gave it a chance to win the title for the first time since its one and only world championship, claimed on home soil in 1998.
France’s manager, Didier Deschamps, was the grinding midfield heart of that team, the player who did the hard work behind the flash of bigger stars like ZInedine Zidane. He has crafted a team that now draws comparisons to those French heroes — dangerous in attack, diligent in midfield, rock-solid in defense.
This France can only match that France, though, if it wins one more game. That will come Sunday at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, the site of Wednesday’s second semifinal between Croatia and England.
Umtiti’s goal ensured France would be there. It came, seemingly, out of nothing: a corner won by France, the ball crossed in by Griezmann, Umtiti running to the near post to meet it. But, crucially, he had stepped away from his marker, Toby Alderweireld, just as the play began, and even though Marouane Fellaini arrived at the final moment to offer at least a token challenge, it was too late. Umtiti’s header sailed over goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, and France, outplayed for a large portion of the first half, suddenly had its destiny in its hands.
The goal gave the French a brief burst of energy, but they soon settled into the kind of practical, businesslike approach that was their manager’s calling card as a player. Raphael Varane and Umtiti cleared whatever balls were served into the penalty area, N’Golo Kanté smothered Eden Hazard every time he moved inside, and Hugo Lloris raced off his line to punch away anything that got past them and looked even remotely dangerous.