OTB World Cup Diary: Vive Saint Petersburg, Vive La France!
Saint Petersburg, the former residence of the Romanov monarchy, the site of the October Revolution at the Winter Palace (above), the victim of an horrific siege in the second World War, (when the city was known as Leningrad), and the home town of Vladimir Putin, is very Parisian in ways, with its wide boulevards, cafes and parks. Fitting then that 'Les Bleus' would reach the 64th and final game of this Russian World Cup against England or Croatia in Moscow on Sunday.
France were always a contender before the tournament started; their last 8 finish in 2014 signalling a stepping stone to better things ahead. After knocking out Germany, they should have won Euro 2016 in their back yard two years later, but a below par display allowed Portugal to become champions in the shadow of the Champs Elysees.
This time around, France seem to be peaking as they attempt to lift their second World Cup, twenty years after their maiden triumph. Their manager, Didier Deschamps, captained the side in 1998 and he is excelling in the art of bringing a great team spirit carefully to the boil, without the fear of taking risks. Just look at the ages of his back four. The goal is winning, winning, winning. Nothing else matters. He may play with PSG, but it is hard to visualize the luxurious Neymar in this French 11.
France were workmanlike in topping their Group, but the Argentina game was pivotal. Teenager Kylian Mbappe announced himself on the world catwalk in that game, scoring twice to help his team win 4-3. Uruguay found the going too tough in the quarter final, and the photo below is an accurate summation of how Belgium's golden generation saw another chance slip away on Tuesday, the life drained out of their hopes and dreams by a French Boa Constrictor.
Once France weathered an early Belgian storm, with Eden Hazard and Toby Alderweireld going close, the plaster of Paris began to set. Benjamin Pavard had the best chance of the opening half, and once Samuel Umtiti headed in the opener from a corner on 51 minutes, Belgium were 'Snowy', Tintin's dog, chasing a lost cause. Marouane Fellaini, who was beaten by Umtiti to the crucial corner, headed wide. Hazard toiled all night, but ended up deeper and deeper as he tried in vain to conjure an opening. The French jersey that he wore as a boy came back to haunt him. Kevin De Bruyne was contained. In midfield, Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and N'Golo Kante had the upper hand. Without a recognised full back in their team, Belgium were lacking in shape and Mousa Dembele struggled. Raphael Varane is a rock in defence and Romelu Lukaku crashed on it. The sight of Mbappe setting Olivier Giroud clear with an outrageous back heel, or leaving De Bruyne floundering with a jet propelled run was the 'coup de grace'. France have an excellent balance to their team and are warm favourites to seize that priceless piece of gold at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Saint Petersburg was the sixth and final city I visited on this tour of Russia, and as I write this on the overnight train back to Moscow, I must implore you to visit it for a weekend break or longer. It is steeped in history. The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood (below) is the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The Hermitage Museum is not something I had the time to attend, but it is highly recommended. It is a beautiful place to walk around, with its colourful Italian style architecture, canals, boats along the Neva river and music wafting on the streets. Quite a romantic location, if the football didn't bring enough romance already this month.
So it's off to see England and Croatia and the latest chapter of 'Football's Coming Home'. I will be interested to gauge the level of support, because the atmosphere around the Stadium in Saint Petersburg was sedate. There were a few thousand French and Belgian fans at most and I was disappointed to see some empty seats at a World Cup semi final. Let's hope for more 'carnival' and less 'corporate' on Wednesday night.