The final awaits
History beckons as France take on Belgium
Les Blues have reputation of choking, while Red Devils have never reached a final before
The tournament favourites take on the tournament’s most potent attacking side. The side accused of bottling it at the biggest stage takes on the side with no history. Les Blues against The Red Devils. Sparks are sure to fly and something’s got to give as one of these two sides book their place in the final.
In an ideal scenario, these two sides — the best two on paper of the remaining four — would be meeting in a historic final. Instead, they face each other in a semi-final.
But do not let that distract you from the fact that, for all players on both sides, this is the most important match of their lives.
We take a look at the prospects of both sides as they chase the dream that consumes every single footballer in the world — playing in a World Cup final.
France are now the tournament favourites for a reason. Didier Deschamps boasts the most balanced first eleven of the remaining quartet, while also having the strength in depth that will surely be the envy of their remaining rivals.
France will be looking to create one-on-one situations against a free-scoring Belgium side that likes to commit men forward, especially if their front three of Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe can isolate the three Belgium centre-backs.
The record for most goals scored at a single World Cup is held by a Frenchman. Legendary striker Just Fontaine scored an eye-watering 13 goals in six matches at the 1958 World Cup
The main problem for France though will be how they cope with Belgium’s marauding wing-backs. Playing something very close to a 4-1-2-1-2, France look to their own full-backs to provide them with width. However, both right-back Benjamin Pavard and left-back Lucas Hernández cannot ignore their defensive duties if they are to have any hopes of keeping Belgium at bay. For Roberto Martinez, attack may well be the best form of defence as it severely curtails France’s wide outlets.
In the middle of the park, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba know all about their Premier League rivals Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Marouane Fellaini and will surely not make the mistake of underestimating the difficulty of the task at hand.
At the back, Raphael Varane has both the pacer and the power to keep Romelu Lukaku quiet but France need to be wary of the interchanging that Belgium’s attacking players employ.
Key player: Kylian Mbappe
Kylian Mbappe delights in running at unsure defences. The lightening pace, quick feet and quicker mind all combine to make him one of the most difficult players to deal with when he is running at you. Deschamps unleashed him upon Argentina to devastating effect in the round-of-16 clash, but he was well marshalled by the Uruguayans in the quarter-finals. The problem for Belgium is that their defence is closer to Argentina’s than to Uruguay’s.
So destructive was he against Argentina that Mbappe has virtually assured he will be a marked man for the remainder of this tournament. How he copes with it may well define how well France fare from here on in.
Didier Deschamps is looking to become just the third man in history to win the World Cup as both player and manager. Brazil’s Mário Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer were the other two.
Mbappe’s most impressive aspect though is his ability to not let the occasion get the better of him. There are sure to be nerves on both teams as they take to the pitch for the semi-final of the World Cup but you can bet your bottom dollar this 19-year-old wonderkid will play with the kind of exhilarating freedom that brings joy to all those witnessing it.
Up against a team that likes to commit men forward, Mbappe’s pace will be vital in both starting and finishing swift counter attacks.
Belgium have been the tournament’s supreme entertainers so far and The Red Devils’ golden generation has its eyes firmly set on the biggest prize.
Much has been said about their flair players and their ability to create and convert chances, but Roberto Martinez’s men are finally showing that they possess other traits of champions too.
Against Brazil they displayed a gritty side to them that had not been seen before, while they showed great mental strength in their round-of-16 tie to become the first side since 1966 to turn a 2-0 second half deficit into a win within regulation time.
Belgium equalled the record for most goals in a European qualification campaign when they smashed 43 on their way to qualifying for Russia.
This is almost uncharted territory for Belgium, who have only ever made it to one semi-final in their history. So recently have Belgium emerged as a force in international football that 25-year-old Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku is their all-time top scorer with 40 goals as well as their all-time World Cup top-scorer with five goals; four of which have come at this tournament.
Martinez’s three-at-the-back formation means Belgium are sure to create overloads in attack but they must also find a way to guard themselves against the counter, meaning they may once again deploy Fellaini alongside Alex Witsel to ensure more solidity in the middle of the park.
Key player: Kevin de Bruyne
On current form, Kevin de Bruyne is arguably the best midfielder this side of Luka Modric and he seems to save his best performances for the biggest matches.
De Bruyne was in scintillating form against Brazil in the quarter-finals, scoring one of the goals of the tournament to knock out one of the pretournament favourites while also pulling the strings in midfield.
Martinez’s decision to drop Napoli attacker Dries Mertens and instead play Fellaini afforded more freedom to De Bruyne, who wreaked havoc with his superb range of passes.
Belgium are the only team at this World Cup to win all their matches so far (excluding penalties).
Deschamps will surely be tempted to task the indefatigable Kante with man marking De Bruyne but the Manchester City maestro is versatile enough to drop deeper and orchestrate play from there if that is the case. This will pull France’s midfield shield further into enemy territory, providing Kante’s Chelsea teammate Hazard a chance to run at the French centre-backs.
In the past three years, nobody has more assists across Europe’s top five leagues than De Bruyne and France may well find themselves packing their bags if they don’t find a way to stop him.
Story: Taha Anis