France peaking perfectly

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ST PETERSBURG — Should France go on to win the World Cup Sunday, they would have peaked perfectly after starting the tournament in Russia slowly but gaining momentum when it mattered most.

Tournament experience has been key for both the players and coach Didier Deschamps, who has learnt lessons from the last World Cup in Brazil, where they lost to Germany in the quarterfinal, and the disappointment of missing out on home soil in the European Championship two years ago.

No more so than Tuesday as they edged Belgium in the semifinal to put themselves within one game of a second World Cup win, 20 years after their first.

While there were questions asked after a far-from-inspiring start, which included a controversial win over Australia and narrowly beating Peru, France still expectedly secured a knockout round spot early from a first round group where they were heavy favorites. They have looked better in each game.

There were, however, no easy rides in the knockout stages where the French had to show their full capability in beating Argentina, Uruguay and then Belgium 1-0 in Tuesday’s semifinal at Saint Petersburg.

“We have prepared well, I can brag a little about that,” laughed Deschamps after securing a place in Sunday’s final in Moscow against either Croatia or England.

“The older players all played their role as leaders and the youngsters brought their energy. I have a squad with a good blend. They have co-habited happily together.

“No one complains and they all realize the importance of the competition. When there was an opportunity to be seized, they took it.”

There have been many positive aspects to their game. A lack of panic when they were 2-1 down against Argentina in the last-16 before coming back to win a thriller 4-3, and patience in breaking down stubborn Uruguay in the quarterfinals.

Against Belgium Tuesday, France was watchful and disciplined.

“We have to give a lot of credit to the way France defended, even having certain attacking players defending very deep and giving us a lot of respect in that way,” said opposing coach Roberto Martinez.

For France, losing in the 2016 European Championships final to Portugal in Paris has provided added motivation.

“It was very difficult to accept what happened two years ago, and we do not want it to happen again. We want to finish this tournament in the best possible way,” said captain Hugo Lloris after another series of heroic saves Tuesday.

Deschamps, who captained France’s only World Cup winning side in 1998, said the march to Sunday’s final has been underpinned by a steely determination.

“There is a spirit in the squad that can move mountains,” he said. “They are young and they will be even stronger in two and four years’ time.

“We have created an opportunity to become world champions but we are still not there. But we want to fulfill our destiny.”

The French national anthem La Marseillaise, chants of “We’re in the final” and a cacophony of car horns and fire crackers rang out over Paris Tuesday as residents of the capital celebrated France’s march to the World Cup final.

A crowd of 20,000 gathered to watch Didier Deschamps’ team beat Belgium on a giant screen at Paris’ historic Hotel de Ville, or town hall.

With viewing space at a premium every vantage spot was occupied — with fans perched on trees, on top of vans, on dustbins and bus shelters.

Samuel Umtiti’s decisive goal in the 51st minute triggered the waving of a sea of tricolor flags as ecstatic supporters — many in the national team’s colors — kissed and hugged and danced.

“Vive la France, vive la Republique” shouted Alia and Sacha, two Parisian schoolchildren.

“We are so proud to be French tonight!” Alia explained as fire crackers exploded on the cobblestones.

Motorbikes, cycles, cars, dustbin lorries — they all came to a standstill to join in the celebrations. With France under high security since the November 2015 terror attacks the fan zone at the town hall was policed by over 1,200 members of the security forces.

Fans, who had climbed on top of buses gingerly inching their way through the crowds, were dancing and waving flares and flags, as the bus driver fought a losing battle to get his passengers to their destination on time. — AFP


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