19:00 BST, Tuesday 10th July, Saint Petersburg Stadium (Saint Petersburg, Russia) BBC One
Billed as the best 23-man squad versus the best starting XI, France versus Belgium bares all the hallmarks of a classic in the making.
Didier Deschamps’ French team may not have injected the adrenalin into this World Cup that many had hoped them to produce, however, their efficiency has been impressive. As the second-youngest squad competing at this World Cup, they have also played with a maturity far exceeding their years.
By contrast, Belgium’s much-vaunted golden generation are fully expected to come of age this summer. After losing his first game in charge, Roberto Martinez has since led the Red Devils on a 23-game unbeaten run in which they’ve scored an average of 3.39 goals per game.
With some of the world’s best attacking players lining up against each other, France gaining momentum at just the right time, Belgium looking to maintain the only 100% record in this tournament, Thierry Henry plotting his own country’s downfall, and no shortage of other sub-plots to this fixture, this match has a lot to live up too and the elements in place to do so.
Last Time Out
Uruguay 0-2 France
It was a tale of two keepers as France progressed to the semi-finals with a controlled and professional display. With Edinson Cavani unfit to make Uruguay’s team, the South Americans lacked bite in attack. They were the more adventurous side during the first half, but could not find the quality to match their energy.
France were resolute in defence and their patience in attack paid off just before halftime. The opening goal came through a well-worked set-piece, Raphael Varane flicking Antoine Griezmann’s sumptuous delivery into the bottom corner of the net from distance.
France then had Hugo Lloris to thank for keeping their advantage at the break. Martin Caceres’ header appeared destined to level the scores only for the Tottenham keeper to make a remarkable save in the 43rd minute.
The 61st minute saw the game effectively ended as a contest when Griezmann turned from provider into finisher. His shot from the edge of the area was well hit, but was straight at Fernando Muslera who unfathomably let the ball slip through his hands and into the net, breaking his side’s spirits in the process.
Brazil 1-2 Belgium
The last of the non-European sides was sent tumbling out of the tournament with a humbling lesson in attacking football. Belgium tore through the Selecao during a first half performance which purred with intent and precision.
Brazil almost took the lead twice through separate corners, however, Fernandinho’s decisive touch from a third came at the wrong end for Brazil. Having taken the lead, Belgium pushed home their advantage by picking off their opponents with quick counter-attacks.
It was one such break forward just after half an hour which Kevin De Bruyne finished with a spectacular strike from just outside the area.
The pace, power and penetration of Belgium’s front three was a source of constant menace, however, Vincent Kompany was lucky not to concede a penalty just after the break.
As the game wore on, Belgium tired from their exertions and Brazil were able to take a former grip on the game. A goal in the 76th minute from Renato Augusto set up an intense finale, but Belgium proved up to the task of seeing out the game and booking their place in the semi-finals.
Benjamin Mendy (muscular) again missed training over the weekend and Djibril Sidibe (ankle) is also a doubt for selection, but Blaise Matuidi will be available once more after serving his one-match suspension.
Samuel Umtiti is expected to be fit to start despite an ongoing knee complaint while Deschamps has again backed Olivier Giroud who is yet to score at this World Cup.
This all points to few changes in personnel for the French who could use the same starting XI which began against Argentina and Peru.
Thomas Meunier will be unavailable through suspension, but Martinez has no other worries ahead of his team selection.
Yannick Carrasco could be drafted back into the first team in Meunier’s absence, with Chadli swapped to the right, although Martinez could opt for more defensive solidity from the start by playing the versatile Leander Dendoncker in the right wing-back position.
Key Battle: Kylian Mbappe (France) vs Eden Hazard (Belgium)
The 19-year-old wearing the French number ten shirt was hailed for his breakthrough performance on the world stage against Argentina. Moulded around two-goals which defeated the South American side, Mbappe showed just how lethal his dribbling skills and his finishing can be.
A more subdued display against Uruguay still flashed glimpses of his talents, however, he will have much more room to flourish against the Belgium defence.
Whilst Mbappe is being touted as football’s future star, Eden Hazard is already the present. His ability to dribble the ball up the pitch and around defenders has not only lit up the competition, it’s proven particularly effective for Belgium.
Hazard provided a more Brazilian-like performance than any player wearing a yellow shirt in the quarter-finals. Furthermore, he did it against a side who had previously conceded only six goals in their previous 25 games.
With both players reportedly attracting the attention of Real Madrid this summer, this game will give a fascinating comparison between two of the games most exciting players.
To press, or not to press, that is the question
Counter-pressing the opponent high up the pitch has become one of the popular modern trends within football. It’s a tactic Belgium have successfully used and exploited in this tournament with both Japan and Brazil – Belgium’s previous opponents in the knockout stages – also having employed it.
But France have taken a different tactical route through the tournament and will present Martinez’s side with a different challenge and will not leave as much space for Belgium’s forwards to exploit.
With Meunier missing from the game, Belgium’s top-heavy team will be missing one of its key defensive components. This increases the Red Devils’ vulnerability to getting caught exposed with players high up the field leaving a large question hanging over how they set up for this semi-final encounter.
France have been accused of failing to live up to expectations several times during the past year, yet they now sit on the cusp of a World Cup final.
The common narrative being drawn places a strong attacking identity on the French team, a natural conclusion given the sum of their parts. This, however, is a misguided interpretation of what Deschamps has created.
Rather than sculpt a side reliant on their firepower, Deschamps has adopted a tactical fluidity. They have often been accused of playing too conservatively, but this is also true of their opposition in these matches.
Only against Argentina has his team played with an attacking freedom, but this was also the only team to play so openly against them. With Belgium fully expected to aim both barrels at them, this chameleon approach could see them triggered into a more expansive strategy on Tuesday evening.
Battle of the underdogs
Both Deschamps and Martinez received plenty of criticism in the weeks leading up to this World Cup. Both nations have a wealth of talent within their respective squads, however, the manager was widely regarded as a weak link which undermined both teams chances.
Deschamps was considered too conservative in style to get the best out of a squad packed full of attacking talent.
This was despite a near-unblemished 18-year managerial record which began with Monaco overcoming all odds to finish second in the Champions League and most recently saw him guide France to a runner-up place in the 2016 European Championship.
Martinez too was thought to be lacking the required nous to make the best of his assembled stars. Having shown great adaptability in the way he’s managed his team during the latter stages of this tournament, he too has silenced his naysayers.
While both managers have outperformed the expectations of many fans and pessimistic commentators already, an appearance in the World Cup final now beckons for one of them.
Prediction: France 2-3 Belgium
This will be the 74th meeting between these two sides, but it’s the first competitive game they will have played since 1986.
France have history on their side having won both previous World Cup encounters with the Red Devils. They also come into this clash as marginal favourites with most bookmakers, but Belgium are the side who have been functioning more as a team in recent weeks.
The way that Belgium came back from a two-goal deficit in the final minutes against Japan showed remarkable spirit amongst their team and they could again prove worthy victors in a game of many goals.
Listen to the RealSport football writers preview all the action ahead of the World Cup semi-finals in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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