World Cup – The Semi-Finals: France and Croatia progress to the final, while Belgium and England bow out

The all European semi-final fixtures maintained the drama, intrigue and heartbreak we’ve come to expect from Russia 2018. Florence Lloyd-Hughes has the round-up of all the talking point.

Didier Deschamps answers his critics with ‘anti-football’

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France manager Didier Deschamps may have finally proved some doubters wrong, after he crafted a perfect France performance on Tuesday night.

The 1998 World Cup hero outsmarted Roberto Martinez in the opposite dugout and guided France to a second major tournament final in just two years.

The tears of a home defeat to Portugal at Euro 2016 could be finally washed away, if Les Bleus can overcome Croatia on Sunday.

France were one of the favourites heading into this tournament, but there were questions about some of Deschamps’ methods. With a squad which oozes talent, many wondered why Deschamps hadn’t been able to maximise their ability en route to qualifying for the World Cup and in the friendlies leading up to it.

In St Petersburg, he used the lethal combination of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann once again, but this time offered an opportunity for the French defence to shine.

The French centre-back pairing of Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane were flawless and admirably supported by superstar Paul Pogba and work horse N’Golo Kante.

It was Umtiti’s header that eventually made the difference in the 51st minute, as he ran onto a Griezmann cross. Even with all their attacking players on show, Belgium could not find a way through to equalise.

France now face their third World Cup final in 20 years, with a chance to claim their first title since 1998. The wait isn’t quite as long as poor old England.

Belgium fall foul to ‘anti-football’

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Deschamps masterful tactics weren’t appreciated by everyone on the pitch on Tuesday.

Belgium’s Eden Hazard, who played in France for five years, was extremely critical of his opposition’s defensive mindset. He told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad: “I prefer to lose with this Belgium than win with this France”.

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois added fuel to fire, accusing the French of being an “anti-football team” with their tactics.

The loss for Belgium marks another major tournament that its ‘golden generation’ has failed to deliver the goods.

The performance is a vast improvement on the 3-1 embarrassment Belgium suffered against Wales in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.

However, there isn’t much time left for this dream squad to get their hands on some silverware.

Football opts not to return home

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England couldn’t quite live up to expectations on Wednesday night, succumbing to a Mario Mandzukic strike in the 109th minute of extra-time. The heartbreaking goal was the latest ever to be conceded by England in a World Cup fixture.

Kieran Trippier initially sent the country into pandemonium with a glorious free-kick early in the game. Things looked good as England briefly controlled the game, creating a few more chances for Harry Kane and Co.

However, England began to stall, letting Croatia back in towards the end of the first half.

By the 60th minute, it was obvious a Croatian equaliser was brewing as England began to tire. Ivan Perisic dutifully slotted home a cross from Sime Vrsaljko to level things up.

As the game went on, Croatia’s confidence grew and England became forced to send long-balls up to an isolated Marcus Rashford.

England stumbled towards extra-time with a nervous energy seemingly spreading to the players. A penalty shoot-out was likely the best-case scenario for the exhausted players, but it never came.

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Tired legs eventually came to bite England, when Perisic flicked on to Mandzukic and John Stones failed to get there fast enough to apply any pressure to the Croatian.

In a flash, the hope that England could be going all the way were quickly cast aside. Players that had given so much on the way to Moscow were running on empty.

Despite the heavy disappointment, England have plenty to look forward to as a young and hungry team will hopefully return for Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.

Follow Florence on Twitter at @FloydTweet

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