(From left) France forward Antoine Griezmann, Belgium’s midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, Croatia midfielder Luka Modrić and England forward Harry Kane. (AP/RSS)
REPUBLICA, July 9: The 2018 FIFA World Cup has set yet another chapter in the football history with the teams who won more than two titles already being crashed out of the tournament as we go into the semifinals in Russia.
The defending champion Germany bowed out from the group stage itself, which was the shock of the tournament, as the four-time winner finished last in Group F behind Sweden, Mexico and South Korea, who defeated it 2-0 in the last round of the group stages.
There were two upsets more to follow in the Round of 16 when 2010 champions Spain lost 3-4 on penalties to the host Russia, while two-time winner Argentina was narrowly beaten 4-3 by France.
Having provided enough shock in the group stages as well as the Round of 16, this World Cup had nothing more than bitter endings for South American duos Uruguay and Brazil which meant only the European teams are left in the tournament. Both the teams could not perform as per its pre-tournament expectations, and lost to the semifinalists France and Belgium, who will now take on each other in the first semifinal of the tournament.
This is the furthest Didier Deschamps's France has gone in the tournament after the 1998 World Cup winner took charge of the team in July of 2012. He took France as far as the quarterfinals in the Brazil World Cup in 2014, but a step more forward this time meant France will be looking to win the title just for the second time.
France won two games and drew one in the group stages, whilst defeating Argentina in the Round of 16 and Uruguay in the quarterfinals was the highlight of its tournament. It takes on high-on-momentum Belgium in the last-four match with both the teams coming after a good run of form in the tournament.
France is well known for its balanced midfield, with Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante performing exceptionally well, it can be said that the team will fancy to lift the title twice.
The Belgian side is often considered to be in its 'Golden Generation' and with wins, in every game, it has played so far, the 2014's quarterfinalists is on right track to win its first World Cup. But, it won't be easy to crack the midfield and attack of France, like it did against Brazil in the quarterfinal.
A mixture of good attacking thrust from Belgium helped it defeat Brazil 2-1 compactly and with great amplitude of attacking resilience. After coach Roberto Martinez used Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne further up the pitch rather than beside Axel Witsel in a deep role, the side looked more balanced and more of an attacking threat to the last standing South American candidate after Uruguay was already out.
The team will be hoping to get more of the same against France if it wants to reach its second semifinals after finishing fourth in the 1986 finals.
After Belgium, yet another European side who has not crossed beyond the semifinals of the tournament and finished third in the 1998 finals, Croatia has been performing exceptionally well boasting its talented midfield and two penalty shootout wins.
Croatia rocked the group stages leaving Argentina, Nigeria, and Iceland behind and winning all its matches. The successes kept coming by two penalty shootout in a 3-2 win over Denmark in the Round of 16 and a 4-3 win over Russia, which knocked the hosts out from the quarterfinals.
The concerns of fatigue after playing more than 120 minutes in two knockout games are already there, but the other problems are added to the list as well with Danijel Subasic, Sime Vrsaljko and Mario Mandzukic getting injured against Russia, and the returning dates still unknown.
Now the talented Croatia side takes on in-form England who comfortably beat Sweden in the quarterfinals.
'It's coming home' chants have often reached the ears of the football followers around the globe after England kept on marching from the Round of 16 and now to the first semifinals of the World Cup after 28 years.
England had no problem clearing the group stages with wins over Tunisia and Panama, but had to face a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Belgium. Finishing second, England faced Colombia and defeated the South American side 3-4 on penalties.
The chants kept on following when it easily saw off Sweden in the quarterfinals 2-0 with two headed goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli.
Harry Kane is the highest goalscorer of the tournament so far with six goals and three penalties converted, and if he gets his act right against Croatia after failing to score against Sweden, England will play its first final of the World Cup after winning the competition in 1966.
England will need to be on its best against Croatia who simply does not like losing as it battled its way out of being goals down against both Denmark and Russia.