Two own-goals and a penalty: France's misfiring attack have defence to thank (2024)

The final whistle sounded and William Saliba and Dayot Upamecano turned and raced towards each other, like a couple of young sweethearts reuniting after a summer apart. It was more bearhug than embrace and after finally unpicking themselves from each other’s arms, they looked behind and made a beeline for their goalkeeper, Mike Maignan, and another round of backslapping.

This was another 90 minutes when France’s star-studded attack again failed to spark into life but it could remain that way for the rest of this tournament and do little to dampen belief that Les Bleus can prevail in Berlin on July 14. With a defensive basis this strong, and Saliba and Upamecano celebrating every block, clearance and tackle like they had just rifled one into the top corner, Didier Deschamps’ side are going to take some shifting, goals or not.

It was not an abundance of attacking riches, you may remember, that carried Spain to World Cup glory in 2010, it was their defence. Three successive 1-0 victories in the knockout stages set up a final with the Netherlands which yes, you have guessed it, they won 1-0.

France may look a little flat upfront but they are formidable at the back and in their overall defensive structure. Romelu Lukaku likes to try to throw his weight around but Belgium’s hapless centre-forward was bullied throughout by the uncompromising Saliba and Upamecano. At right-back, Jules Kounde picked up the man of the match award and kept Jeremy Doku on the tightest of reins while still managing to be France’s brightest attacking outlet. Left-back Theo Hernández’s key contribution was a perfectly timed recovery challenge on Yannick Carrasco on the hour that he celebrated ferociously, beating his chest and letting out a huge roar. Maignan made important saves from Kevin De Bruyne, twice, and Lukaku. In the midfield hole, Aurélien Tchouaméni was the perfect sentry. And it is just as well they are rather good at the defending bit.

Four games into this tournament, a France player has still to score from open play. Two of their three goals have been scored by opponents and the other was a penalty. Antoine Griezmann returned to the team but was stationed wide on the right with licence to cut in and, while he worked hard out of possession, he never really grabbed hold of the game. Marcus Thuram, deployed through the middle, had a forgettable game and was withdrawn for RandalKolo Muani.

Like their opening match against Austria, this game was settled by an own goal, poor Jan Vertonghen watching substitute Kolo Muani’s cross-cum-shot bounce off his leg and in with five minutes of normal time remaining of an attritional affair.

It remains to be seen if this, at 37, is Vertonghen’s 156th and final game for his country but it was not the way he would have wanted to bow out if it is and his mood will doubtless have been soured further by the sight of Kylian Mbappé rubbing his nose in it. The pair had been involved in a running dispute before it after Mbappéappeared to take exception to Vertonghen accusing him of diving in the 70th minute but it was still rather tasteless watching France’s captain get up in the former Spurs defender’s face after his misfortune. Glenn Nyberg, the Swedish referee who had earlier spoken to the pair after their initial spat, gave Mbappe a stern warning.

Mbappé, again in a protective mask Deschamps expected him to have to wear for the rest of the tournament, had been as guilty as anyone for being wasteful on a night when 16 of France’s 19 shots against Belgium failed to hit the target, the majority blazed over the crossbar. On a sweltering day against Poland in Dortmund, Deschamps claimed the sweat from the mask had stung Mbappé’s eyes and here the France coach suggested it was impacting on his striker’s peripheral vision. “You’ve got the sweat aspect and we know sweat can get in his eyes,” Deschamps said. “He’s getting used to it but it can affect his vision. He says it’s like he’s seeing things in 3D. Everything in front of him is fine but there’s a delay with his peripheral vision. But he’ll have to get used to it over the coming weeks or months.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the peripheral vision of the all-seeing Saliba or Upamecano. Bar that one opportunity that Maignan dived low to keep out in the second half, Lukaku barely had sight of goal, France’s centre-halves dominating him physically and nonchalantly sweeping up around the cumbersome Belgium striker when his first touch failed him. Which it did. Often. This was a crumpled face emoji of a performance from the 31-year-old Lukaku and you have to wonder how much longer some of Belgium’s old stagers have left for their country now.

Kevin De Bruyne was more involved once Domenico Tedesco switched from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 and pushed the Manchester City midfielder further upfield and the 33-year-old was frustrated not to do better when he slammed a shot at Maignan three minutes before France scored. It started after Lukaku, not for the first time, had been unable to hold up the ball. France got themselves down Belgium’s right where Mbappe found Hernandez who cut inside. The ball was circulated between Griezmann, Kounde and N’Golo Kanté into Kolo Muani whose shot after turning Vertonghen took a wicked deflection and left the Belgium goalkeeper Koen Casteels no chance.

France vs Belgium: As it happened . . .

Two own-goals and a penalty: France's misfiring attack have defence to thank (2024)


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