France secured their place in the knockout stages of the European Championships with a game to spare after beating Belgium on a dusky summer evening, but they will wait anxiously for news on the knee injury suffered by their striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto.
Their opponents, meanwhile, have to achieve a better result against Italy than Iceland get against France to stand a chance of progressing. They kept the scoreline respectable but were unable to deny Kadidiatou Diani and Griedge Mbock from punishing their defensive lapses.
Belgium finished with 10 players after Amber Tysiak was shown a second yellow card for a late handball, with a France penalty also awarded after a VAR review. The French captain, Wendie Renard, saw the resulting spot-kick saved by Nicky Evrard and put the rebound wide.
France, who had begun their campaign with a 5-1 rout of Italy, gave Belgium no time to acclimatise to their blistering attack. They immediately set out to ask questions via Grace Geyoro and went ahead through Diani in the sixth minute.
Corinne Diacre, the France manager, said of her side’s impressive start: “We’ve been working on this for a while because we came up against teams like Belgium in the 2023 World Cup qualifiers. We were like how we were on the eve of the first match: focused, determined. After the Italy game, I didn’t need to talk a lot. The girls knew what they had to do.”
Given that Geyoro had scored a hat-trick in her previous game, it seemed sensible for Belgium to focus their attention on her. Yet it was Diani who snuck in at the far post to nod in a perfectly timed header from Sakina Karchaoui’s deep cross.
After a lengthy VAR check for a possible offside the game got going again – and so did the France attack. This time they were led by Clara Matéo, who was cutting in from the left and running rings around Sari Kees. She almost made it 2-0 with a curling effort that led to reverberating “oohs” around the New York Stadium.
From top to bottom, France were purring. If there was any point of concern for Diacre it would have been the early substitution of Katoto, who seemed to go down without any provocation and left the pitch clutching her knee.
“The only downside [to the match] is Marie’s injury,” Diacre said afterwards. “I hope it’s not too serious. It’s the knee. We’ll have to wait for the exams but we’ll try to have one done tomorrow.”
Katoto’s replacement, Ouleymata Sarr, had no time to settle. Moments later she was watching Janice Cayman level for Belgium with a toe-poke that trickled past Pauline Peyraud-Magnin. No matter. France had proved they could outscore opponents in their last game, and they showed it again with a goal from Mbock almost immediately.
A similar start to the second half could have gone a long way to putting the game to bed, and France began peppering Evrard’s goal with Geyoro leading the charge. Sarr soon joined her teammate, leaving Kees in her wake, but Evrard managed to gather the ball before she could force it into the net.
Something had to change for Ives Serneels’s team. In an attempt to fire up the attack, Laura Deloose and Feli Delecauw were brought on after about an hour. The pair got to work and soon Belgium were launching more counterattacks.
But though they were forcing greater turnovers in possession, France still possessed the superior attack. They would not be denied, least of all on Bastille Day, even if Renard squandered the opportunity from the spot to make it 3-1.
Serneels said: “They played faster passes and had much more pace on the flanks where we couldn’t catch them.”