Samuel Umtiti headed France into the World Cup final as Belgium’s Golden Generation came up just short in St Petersburg.
On a night when teenager Kylian Mbappe once again underlined his mouth-watering potential in breath-taking style, it was Barcelona central defender Umtiti who made the decisive intervention when he headed home Antoine Griezmann’s 51st-minute corner with the help of a touch off Marouane Fellaini to secure a 1-0 win.
The 1998 winners will face either Croatia or England in Sunday’s final, leaving the Belgians to reflect on what might have been after Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku and company could not bring their considerable talents to bear in meaningful fashion.
Mbappe gave an early signal of his intent when he embarked upon a fleet-footed run within seconds of the kick-off, but as Belgium settled, they responded with Hazard prominent and Nacer Chadli seeing plenty of the ball down the right.
Mbappe was in full stride once again with 13 minutes gone, prompting keeper Thibaut Courtois to race from his line to intervene after Paul Pogba had eluded Moussa Dembele and charged forward before feeding the ball into his path.
However, opposite number Hugo Lloris was relieved to see Hazard drag his shot across goal three minutes later after De Bruyne had opened up the French defence.
As play switched rapidly from end to end, the excellent Blaise Matuidi, back in the side after suspension, warmed Courtois’ hands with a rising 18th-minute drive, but the impressive Raphael Varane had to get in a vital header to divert Hazard’s curling effort away from goal seconds later.
Lloris had to claw away defender Toby Alderweireld’s 22nd-minute shot on the turn with Belgium dominating, but Olivier Giroud flashed a header just wide of Courtois’ left post from Benjamin Pavard’s cross nine minutes later and then could not hit the target from Mbappe’s cushioned pass.
Full-back Pavard might have opened the scoring five minutes before the break after being played in by Mbappe, only for Courtois to get a hand to his effort.
Lukaku was presented with his first real opportunity three minutes of the restart, but headed harmlessly over from Axel Witsel’s inviting cross, but when the opening goal arrived, it did so at the other end.
Umtiti got to Griezmann’s corner marginally before Fellaini and saw his header flick off the midfielder as it flew into the net.
France went for the kill and would have been 2-0 ahead had Dembele not got a block on Giroud’s shot after he had run on to Mbappe’s audacious back-heeled pass.
Roberto Martinez’s men stepped up a gear as they looked for a way back into the game and Fellaini headed just wide from substitute Dries Mertens’ 65th-minute cross with the newcomer making a significant impact.
Lloris had to parry Witsel’s 81st-minute thunderbolt as Belgium threw everything they had left at them, but their best efforts proved in vain as France saw out the game in relative comfort.