ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (TNS) — Half the pairing for the World Cup final is set, with France reserving its spot in the title game Tuesday with a 1-0 victory over Belgium. Its opponent will be decided Wednesday in Moscow, where Croatia will play England.
France got the only goal it would need in the 51st minute when Samuel Umtiti jumped in front of Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini to head in a corner kick from Antoine Griezmann. In a luxury suite wedged between the two decks of St. Petersburg's $1.1 billion stadium, French President Emmanuel Macron — who was watching the game with King Philippe of Belgium — was met by a congratulatory handshake from FIFA chief Gianni Infantino.
For Griezmann, who led France to the final of the European Championship two years ago, the assist was his fourth, to go with nine goals, in this World Cup and the 2016 Euros combined.
France then sat back to protect the lead, meeting some Belgian rushes with a Maginot Line of six defenders stretching the width of the field. That suffocated an attack that had been free-wheeling and creative in the first half.
Still, Fellaini managed to get his head on a cross in the 65th minute, but knocked it wide of the right post. Then in the 81st minute Axel Witsel got off a right-footed rocket through traffic that French keeper Hugo Lloris punched out with both fists. Belgium's Kevin de Bruyne, charging in from the right side, had the rebound go over his head — otherwise he would have had a shot at an open net.
Two of the tournament's most potent attacks both had plenty of chances in a scoreless but fast-paced first half that began with Griezmann putting a shot on goal in the opening seconds, the first of 14 shots before the intermission.
Eden Hazard had two of Belgium's best looks, the first coming in the 16th minute when he ran into a feed from de Bruyne in the box but pushed his left-footed shot from the left wing wide of the far post.
Three minutes later, another Hazard try from the left side of the box, this time with the right foot, was blocked by the French defense. And then in the 22nd minute Toby Alderweireld appeared to beat Lloris with a left-footed shot from the top of the box but Lloris was able to reach back and make a splendid one-handed save.
Early in the half, France's Blaise Matuidi spun just outside the top of the box and lined a hard left-footed shot on goal but it went right to Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois. In the 31st minute, an Olivier Giroud header landed a foot or two wide of the right post and then Courtois came up with his best save of the opening half, getting a leg on a Benjamin Pavard shot from the right edge of the penalty area.
Belgium, which had been unbeaten in the tournament until Tuesday, was playing in just its second World Cup semifinal and its first since 1986. France, the 1998 champion, has made it to the final in three of the last six World Cups.