France edge past Belgium after Jan Vertonghen own goal at Euro 2024

It took until their 66th shot and the 84th minute and 36th second of their fourth game but France at last scored a goal from open play at these Euros. Or maybe they didn’t? When at last it came, Randal Kolo Muani’s late strike was scuffed and needed a deflection off a defender’s knee to beat Mike Maignan, the winner in Düsseldorf another one that might ultimately not go down as a goal of their own, awarded to poor Jan Vertongen instead. Either way, it was enough to take them through to a 1-0 win over Belgium. And that, it is tempting to conclude, is the perfect portrait of this team.

The tournament favourites, blessed of the kind of talent others can only dream of and the world’s best player, a footballer capable of scoring five World Cup final goals, France have just three goals: a penalty, and one or perhaps two scored for them by opponents. And yet there they are in the quarter final, still standing, and you would not bet against them going further. This was not always very good, and the winner felt like a pretty appropriate way to win it, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that, somehow, this is by design. That, somehow, it is all under control.

Even when it is not. And for as long as France’s shooting flew wide and over and anywhere but in, they remained on edge. Right until the final ten minutes when Maignan had to make a superb save from Kevin De Bruyne. In fact, while France took 19 shots to Belgium’s five, Domenico Tedesco may reflect that his side had the better openings on a strange, oddly still and not always very entertaining afternoon which was destined to be settled by a single moment. At the end, it could have been Belgium celebrating, not France.

It took nine minutes for Griezmann to take the first shot and by half-time the totals read 9-1 but that opening effort was weak and what followed wasn’t very much better. Occasionally, there would be a neat exchange, a dash beyond the marker, and there were a couple of headers at the near post from Marcus Thuram. Aurélien Tchouaméni fired over and Kylian Mbappé bundled through on the left. But it was all a bit slow and uninspiring – it’s not like there was that much noise from the stands either, some sense of the grand occasion – and Casteels didn’t have a real save to make.

At the other end, Maignan did, although it was only once. Belgium appeared more or less at ease with this and why not? On those few occasions when they did run, things opened a little before them, Jérémy Doku and Yannick Carrasco leading the way. There was also a lovely sharp turn into the area by Loïs Openda which left Carrasco with a chance from which he might have done better. From one of those Doku runs, they won a free-kick from which De Bruyne curled in a shot that, hidden by the bodies standing before him, almost caught out the French goalkeeper. He just about managed to kick away while falling backwards.

And that, in truth, was pretty much that.

A neat turn away from de Bruyne by Mbappé opened the second half in much the same way, the ball floating off the pitch. France did increase the speed with which they moved the ball, a touch more insistence to them. Mbappé and N’Golo Kanté set up Tchouaméni who, side-footed, curled towards the bottom corner, drawing the first really notable save from Casteels. That was followed by another Thuram header over, before he was removed. And then Mbappé dashed inside and shot over. A moment later, Griezmann and Koundé made another opening for him, which was sliced wide.

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France tightened their grip; Belgium though suddenly broke free. William Saliba lost the ball, De Bruyne lifted it over the challenge and then slipped in Carrasco, sprinting into the area. Carrasco seemed to pause; it was just enough for Theo Hernández to slide in and make a superb block. Belgium had another opportunity too, Maignan saving superbly from Lukaku, set up by De Bruyne’s pass and Orel Mangala’s run. It would not be the last time. There were seven minutes left when he made a superb stop from De Bruyne. And then, two minutes later, France did it again.

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