Belgium and France face off in mouth-watering semifinal
July 10, 2018 08:22 AM NPT
ST PETERSBURG, July 9: Roberto Martinez’s swashbuckling Belgium side heads into Tuesday’s semifinal with familiar foes France as the World Cup’s leading scorers, but its old rival has evolved as the tournament has progressed and will also be full of confidence.
Belgium has scored 14 goals in five matches and was hugely impressive in its 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Brazil, with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne combining to devastating effect to oust the five-times world champion.
In contrast, France sleep-walked through the group stages, eking out wins over Australia and Peru before a stultifying 0-0 draw with Denmark.
Its early struggles had ‘Les Bleus’ being written off in some quarters, but all that changed when it faced Argentina in the last 16 in what must be a leading contender for the most exciting match of the tournament.
Didier Deschamps tweaked his formation, effectively freeing up Kylian Mbappe on the right to run at the Argentine defense, and what followed was a wonderful display of attacking football that France won 4-3.
The victory boosted France’s morale, and it followed it up with a workman-like 2-0 win over Uruguay that was impressive because of how well it managed to control the game against tricky opponents.
Belgium faced a heart-stopping moment of uncertainty in the first knockout round against Japan, when Martinez’s decision to rest players in its final group match against England almost backfired spectacularly.
Belgium’s returning first team players made a sluggish start against the Samurai Blue and suddenly found themselves trailing by two goals with time ebbing away.
Stung into action, Martinez sent on Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli in the 65th minute, and both were heavily involved as Belgium pulled off a late comeback, with Chadli securing victory with practically the last kick of the game.
Against Brazil in the quarters, Martinez showed tactical adventure, as he pushed target man Lukaku to the wing to allow De Bruyne to operate as a ‘false nine’. The strategy worked, and De Bruyne scored his first goal in Russia.
Tuesday’s clash in St Petersburg has all the makings of a classic, with fans and viewers likely to be treated to the sight of two wonderfully attacking teams going toe-to-toe.
“It’s a super exciting game with great players on both sides,” France defender Benjamin Pavard said. “It’s going to be a man’s match and we will have to step up.”
France, world champions in 1998, is slight favorite to go through according to most bookmakers, but Belgium tends to step up its game against the particular European rival, if history is anything to go by.
Of the 73 meetings between the teams, Belgium has won 30 and France 24, with 19 draws between them, although if Belgium is to reach its first World Cup final it will have to do so by beating France at the tournament for the first time.
France came through their quarterfinal unscathed, and Deschamps has his entire squad to choose from, while Belgium is only slightly worse off.
Full back Thomas Meunier is suspended after picking up a second yellow card of the tournament against Brazil, with Martinez likely to bring in Yannick Carrasco in his place.
France vs Belgium facts
It will be only the second semifinal appearance for Belgium, but for France it is a sixth.
Belgium’s only previous semi-final appearance came at the 1986 finals, where Diego Maradona ensured for Argentina a place in the final with both goals in a 2-0 victory.
After losing in the 1986 semifinal, Belgium faced France in Puebla for the bronze medal in the third place playoff and was beaten 4-2 after extra time despite taking an early lead.
Belgium made it to the last eight at the last World Cup in Brazil but its hopes of a semifinal spot was snuffed out by one early Gonzalo Higuain goal for Argentina.
Just Fontaine’s record of 13 goals in a single tournament from the 1958 finals still stands as he helped propel the French to their first-ever semifinal, where it lost 5-2 to Brazil in Stockholm, with teenager Pele scoring a hat-trick.
France lost on post-match penalties to West Germany in Seville in the 1982 semi-final, best remembered for an unpunished kung-fu style challenge by goalkeeper Harold Schumacher on France’s Patrick Battison that saw the Frenchman stretchered off 10 minutes after coming on as a substitute with a cracked vertebra and damaged teeth.
Four years later in Mexico, France was again semifinalists but once more thwarted by the Germans, losing 2-0 in Guadalajara.
France won the World Cup when it hosted the 1998 finals, beating Croatia in the semifinal 2-1.
Current coach Didier Deschamps captained France that year as it lifted the trophy for the first time. He is now seeking to return to the final as he chases the double of winning the World Cup as both a player and a coach.
France’s fifth semifinal appearance came in 2006, when Zinedine Zidane’s penalty was enough to beat Portugal 1-0.