header decal

News

10 Jul 2018

2018 World Cup: The semi-final preview

2018 World Cup: The semi-final preview

There are only five days left in the 2018 World Cup and the semi-finals are set. But which two sides will make it to the final?

REUTERS/Lee Smith

The World Cup, as it always does, has absolutely flown by: it's been three-and-a-half weeks since the 2018 World Cup in Russia got underway. 

So far there have been 60 matches played and only four remain. 

157 goals have been scored. 

There has been no shortage of last-minute drama and VAR talking points have been aplenty. 

32 teams entered the competition and now only four remain. Europe has dominated the latter stages of the tournament and UEFA is represented by all four remaining teams. 

Heavyweights Belgium and France go head-to-head on Tuesday evening in the first of two semi-finals before England and Croatia battle it out to set up a final that few would have predicted.

But who are the favourites? And who can we expect to fight it out in the final on Sunday?

France vs Belgium

France's run

On one side of the draw, things have followed the script more so than the other side. Both France and Belgium have had to overcome opponents that could also have looked the part in the last four instead. 

France's journey started in Group C but they laboured their way through three fixtures that many expected them to make light work of. A narrow 2-1 over Australia was followed up by a slender victory over South American nation, Peru. Then, with Didier Deschamps' side already certain of a place in the Round of 16, they played out a dour 0-0 draw with a Denmark side who were happy to take a point and also progress. 

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The three games didn't do many favours for their tournament credentials. A Round of 16 tie with Argentina, though, saw the brakes on their much-hyped attacking play released. Kylian Mbappe came to the fore with two well-taken goals, as the world wondered if the French were finally out of second gear.

After the 4-3 win, which was perhaps narrower than it should have been, the French then has to navigate a potentially tricky tie with the notoriously stubborn Uruguay. Before the quarter-final, Oscar Tabarez's side had conceded only once. With France's stuttering attack, their chances of breaking down a Diego Godin-led defence looked slim but a Raphael Varane header and an uncharacteristic Fernando Muslera error secured a comfortable 2-0 win. 

Belgium now stand in the way of the French reaching their third World Cup Final... can Deschamps engineer a way past Roberto Martinez's side?

Belgium's journey

Having been drawn in Group G, Belgium entered the tournament as one of the outside favourites having gone through a near-faultless qualifying campaign, topping UEFA's Group H with nine wins and one draw: one of the best records in the region. 

Belgium's opening game against Panama saw a Premier League-heavy team put three unanswered goals past their opponents. 

A 5-2 dismantling of Tunisia put Belgium into the knockout stages with a game to spare which allowed manager Martinez the opportunity to rest several of his first XI in the final group stage game against England. Adnan Januzaj's curling effort won all three points in that game, meaning Belgium topped Group G and faced Japan in the Round of 16. 

REUTERS/John Sibley

The Red Devils had to survive a real test of character after going 2-0 down to Japan before turning the game on its head, winning 3-2. 

Brazil was waiting for the Belgians in the last eight, and Martinez's gameplan was executed brilliantly as his side dispatched the pre-tournament favourites, 2-1. 

Belgium, with their 'golden generation' soon to become a 'silver-haired generation', have the chance to reach their first ever World Cup Final.

Who is the favourite?

On previous World Cup performances and with the pedigree they possess on a stage this grand, France will fancy themselves as the favourites for this one.

Belgium, though, will be quietly confident they can do the job once more, having gone past Brazil in relative comfort.

This game will be littered with Europe's best talent, with the Premier League, La Liga and Ligue 1 all strongly represented between both sides.

Belgium will rely on their technically gifted forward players to carry the fight going forward while the defence must be wary of the clear threat that the pace of Kylian Mbappe possesses. 

Croatia vs England

Croatia's route to a second semi-final

While not strictly unchartered territory for the Balkan nation, Croatia have only cleared the first hurdle at a World Cup once - reaching this stage in 1998. Few would have predicted them to have got this far but now they will fancy their chances to reach their first ever World Cup Final. 

Croatia's task seemed difficult, having qualified for the tournament through a play-off in the UEFA region, they were thrown into Group D alongside Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland.

A simple 2-0 win over Nigeria got their campaign off to a positive start before a Luka Modric-inspired performance saw the Croats dismantle an ailing Argentina defence, ending in a 3-0 scoreline. With a passage to the Round of 16 guaranteed before the final group game with Iceland, Croatia scored in injury to beat the island nation 2-1, ensuring the maximum nine-point haul. 

REUTERS/Carl Recine

Given Croatia's past three performances, few saw them having trouble against Denmark, though a penalty shootout was needed to split the teams after 120 minutes.

Their quarter-final with Russia then went all the way, too, after the hosts levelled the game with only five minutes left on the clock in the second period of extra time. 

Ivan Rakitic's decisive penalty, though, ensured Croatia became the first team to win two shootouts at a World Cup on their way to the last four. 

England's surprise challenge

When manager Gareth Southgate took charge of England, the national team were in a sorry state of affairs of the back of an embarrassing Euro 2016 exit and unwanted managerial press. England, though, in customary fashion, qualified top of UEFA's Group F, with eight wins and two draws in ten matches. 

Recent failures at summer tournaments haven't given the English faithful much to get excited about, however Southgate and England are turning doubters into believers.

After landing in Group G with Belgium, Tunisia and Panama, England were expected to emerge rom the first stage, but perhaps no further. Limping to a 2-1, injury-time win over Tunisia, England needed a more convincing win over Panama. After a 6-1 dismantling of the Central Americans, England were through to the Round of 16 with a game to spare.

REUTERS/Max Rossi

Southgate rested several of his starting XI though England were beaten by Belgium in the final game of the stage. Finishing second turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Three Lions, with the side of the draw they now found themselves on being arguably weaker.

As the side gathered pace, a narrow win over Colombia in the first knockout round followed, courtesy of England's first penalty shootout win at a World Cup.

A meeting with Sweden in the quarter-finals saw individual performances win the game for Southgate's side, 2-0, though the level of spirit and cohesion within the was evidently stronger than many had seen before.

Southgate's England are now into their first semi-final since the 1990 tournament in Italy and his side have now have the chance to reach their first World Cup Final since 1966. 

Which side will get to the end...?

As should be expected at this stage of a tournament, both sides will feel this is a winnable game. 

Croatia, despite having played more football, have had to show the mental attitude and strength to get through two penalty shootouts, something no other country had done before.

Neither team will look back on their route to the final and declare it overly 'tough' when compared to their peers on the other side of the draw, though getting this far wouldn't have been in the script for either. 

England has a young, energetic side capable of causing damage to any defence, though they may feel light in the midfield.

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, the core of the Croatian midfield for many years, will prove a challenge to the likes of Jordan Henderson. 

There will be question marks over the energy left in the Croatian tank after playing two games in a row to their maximum extent. Perhaps that is the chink in the armour England will aim for...