France became the first side to book their place in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals with a comfortable 2-0 win over Uruguay in Nizhny Novgorod.
The South Americans huffed and puffed but never really troubled the 1998 champions who advanced thanks to goals from Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann, his third of the tournament. They can now look forward to a semi-final in St Petersburg on Tuesday against Belgium.
Uruguay fans outnumbered their French counterparts in the very blue-and-white stadium by at least ten to one and that advantage certainly told during the national anthems.
But while they sang their hearts out they must also have known that France had just received a major boost with the news that Paris Saint- Germain star Edinson Cavani would be sitting on the bench and not terrorising their defence.
Uruguay’s two-goal hero in the last round against Portugal had failed to recover from the calf injury that saw him limp off, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s help, which meant former Middlesbrough striker Cristhian Stuani would be alongside nuisance-in-chief Luis Suarez.
Stuani is a better player than he showed on Teesside – he scored 19 goals for Girona last season – but he is not as good as Cavani. So it was no real surprise to see Uruguay’s bright start fizzle out after about ten minutes and France’s more cultured midfield begin to take control, with N’Golo Kante busily recycling the ball and Paul Pogba and Griezmann looking to get Kylian Mbappe away down the right.
And the first big chance fell to France’s man of the moment. Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud found him all alone, six yards out, with a lovely cushioned header but Mbappe mistimed his leap and headed wastefully over.
Not a great deal happened for the next 25 minutes. France were the better team but Uruguay were resolute and relatively unruffled, which is why the goal they conceded in the 40th minute will annoy them so much.
Griezmann’s free-kick from 40 yards out was well delivered but, for once, Diego Godin and co were beaten to the header by another defender, the classy Varane, who glanced it expertly past Fernando Muslera.
‘La Celeste’ are nothing if not resilient, though, and they nearly equalised just before the break with a carbon-copy goal. This time, however, Hugo Lloris produced a magnificent save to deny Martin Caceres’ header.
The two-time world champions started the second half well, too, and with Maximiliano Gomez and the lively Cristian Rodriguez coming on for the disappointing Stuani and cautioned Rodrigo Betancur on the hour, it looked like they might get back into it.
But then disaster struck. France had not got going at all but Pogba found Griezmann about 25 yards out and he pulled the trigger. It was certainly travelling but it was more or less straight at Muslera and should have been a routine save.
The Galatatasary goalkeeper got it horribly wrong, though, and the ball squirted through his gloves to double France’s lead with under half an hour to play.
Rodriguez nearly got one back with a shot just wide following a corner but the game then entered a bad-tempered spell, with Uruguay accusing Mbappe of play-acting and the teenager annoyed at their attempts to drag him to his feet. He was carded for his reaction.
Uruguay threw everything at France late on, including defender Jose Gimenez as an auxiliary attacker, but Didier Deschamps’ men soaked it all up without any alarm.
And by the end Les Bleus, wearing white here, looked every inch potential world champions.