Umtiti, Les Bleus’s Latest Hero


France have so many potential match-winners at their disposal that every one of their matches at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia has ended with a different hero. Taking his turn to step into the limelight against Belgium on Tuesday night was Samuel Umtiti, whose flashing header powered Les Bleus into the Final.

The man of the moment was still high on emotion when he stepped off the pitch: “I’m not going to get much sleep tonight,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to nod off. But I don’t need to anyway; I’m not tired. I don’t care.” France’s win recalled their 1998 semi-final triumph against Croatia, when another defender was the hero of the hour: Lilian Thuram. “I hope it’s a sign,” smiled the Number 5, before adding: “It is different, though. Let’s take one thing at a time. We need to rest up for Sunday now.”

Umtiti’s winner came just minutes after his misguided clearance gave Romelu Lukaku a clear-cut opportunity to give Belgium the lead. Asked if such mistakes can impact on a player’s performance, he said: “No, not in my case anyway. When you’re a footballer, you know that a thousand different things can happen in a match. As soon as one thing’s gone, you have to move on to the next, no matter whether you got it right or made a mistake.”

Just as in their quarter-final defeat of Uruguay, it was Antoine Griezmann’s dead-ball skills that set Les Bleus on the way to victory. The striker has been involved in 13 of their last 20 tournament goals. As the Barcelona centre-half explained, a lot of effort has gone into making that stat happen: “We work on a lot of set-pieces with Antoine, and my job is to run in front of the defenders and go to the near post. He hit a fantastic corner, I got round (Marouane) Fellaini and buried it.”

“Yes, the aim was to hit the front post with Piochy (Paul Pogba) in front and Sam (Umtiti) coming in behind,” said Griezmann. “I can’t remember in the end if Paul was in front, but Sam was definitely there.”

Still unbeaten at Russia 2018, Les Bleus continue to impress with their all-round firepower, which seems to grow with every passing game. Their hope now is that they can be equally clinical in their next outing, the most important one of all.