Mbappe shines again as Umtiti puts France one step away from World Cup glory

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The mercurial 19-year-old was not the difference-maker on the night but in this most closely contested of World Cups he just might be on Sunday

So far this has been a World Cup of tactical understanding and physical prowess. By Sunday evening, it could be the World Cup of Kylian Mbappe.

France edged out Belgium in St Petersburg not with an Mbappe goal but, somewhat predictably, a header from a corner, courtesy of Samuel Umtiti.

Again somewhat predictably, this was a closely contested match that could really have gone either way. In the past two games of the respective teams, Belgium were ultimately better organised and, with all due respect, luckier than Japan and Brazil.

It has been the same story for France; they ruthlessly exploited a weak Argentina - although still conceded three goals - and edged past a stubborn Uruguay thanks to another set-piece goal and a goalkeeping howler. 

Between them they have laid waste to South America's brightest hopes, leaving many of the continent's pundits bemoaning their sides' lack of European know-how. 

"We still have the Messis and Neymars," says Jorge Valdano, a world champion with Argentina in 1986, "but for the first time in a decade, the physical aspect imposed itself on the technical aspect and the collective aspect on the individual aspect.

"That is why the middle classes, like Sweden and Russia, reached the quarter-finals."

And it is why France and Belgium, two vastly more talented nations, went one step further. When they faced off on Tuesday night, the game, which was enjoyable and full of chances, followed a predictable pattern; there was bright attacking play from some of the fine individuals on show, but ultimately this was a structured game where both defences - and their goalkeepers - held up well.

Antoine Griezmann France 100718

Umtiti out-jumped Marouane Fellaini at a corner six minutes into the second half and that was the difference. The European teams that have arrived to the last four have relied on these fine margins; Croatia have won on penalties twice, England have done it once, and have made hay at set-pieces all summer.

But while Valdano and South America can still lay claim to Messi and Neymar, Europe has Mbappe.

He was not the difference maker here but his numerous interventions leave you with the feeling that he will be, at some point. Maybe after such a tight World Cup we are merely hoping for this to be the case, a superstar we can hail and hashtag. 

But he has shown that he can really explode, and when he does it will be something truly special. He 'arrived' against Argentina, his breathtaking pace cutting Messi's men to bits, but found himself shackled by Uruguay, by far the most organised South American side, at every level. 

Kylian Mbappe, Mousa Dembele

Against Belgium the 19-year-old was something in between; not quite the Argentina highs, but certainly not the Uruguay lows. 

His pace - or even the threat of it - had Belgium on the back-foot throughout, the fans in the stands on their feet, but the impudent flick that put Olivier Giroud through on goal moments after Umtiti's opener showed that there is more to his game, that he does not simply need space to run into to kill you.

At times he was guilty of picking the wrong pass - twice on the break he switched the play when he really could have burned his man and caused damage far closer to the box - but he is the individual, in this most collective of World Cups, who will most concern whoever faces France in Moscow on Sunday.

Both England and Croatia follow the blueprint of well-drilled European sides and it will surely be another tight match in the Russian capital, especially with so much at stake.

Olivier Giroud, Samuel Umtiti, France

There's a fair chance that it will be another set-piece, or a penalty shoot-out, that will decide it. But with Mbappe on the pitch, there is always a sense that something truly remarkable could happen at any moment.

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Plenty expected France to flounder in Russia, given their relative lack of flair when the talent of their players is taken into account, but their discipline and organisation, the traits that had been overlooked as we focused on what they do not have, have proven to be more than enough to get them this far.

Two years ago they got to the final of the European Championship against Portugal on home soil but looked uninspired, frozen almost, and a long-range Eder goal proved to be the fine margin. It was what France did not have that cost them.

But they did not have Mbappe then, and now they do.

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