Roberto Martinez ’s swashbuckling Belgium side head into Tuesday's semifinal against familiar foes France as the team that has scored the most goals this tournament but their old rival, France, has evolved as the tournament has progressed and will also be full of confidence. Belgium has scored 14 goals in five matches and they were hugely impressive in their 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Brazil, with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyen combining effectively to oust the five times world champions. In contrast, France sleep-walked through the group stages, eking out wins over Australia and Peru before a stultifying 0-0 draw with Denmark. Their early struggles had ‘les Bleus’ being written off in some quarters, but all that changed when they faced Argentina in the last 16 in what must be a leading contender for the most exciting match of the tournament.Deschamps tweaked his formation effectively freeing up Kylian Mbappe on the right to run at the Argentine defence, and what followed was a wonderful display of attacking football that saw France win 4-3. The victory boosted France’ s morale, and they followed it up with a workmanlike 2-0 win over Uruguay. The performance was impressive because of how well they managed to control the game against tricky opponents.
Belgium faced a period of uncertainty in the first knockout round against Japan when Martinez's decision to rest players in their 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 an action, Martinez sent on Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli in the 65th minute, and both made a significant impact as Belgium pulled off a late comeback, with Chadli securing victory in the last minute of the game. Against Brazil in the quarters, Martinez showed his tactical brilliance, 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 spectacle of two wonderfully attacking teams going toe-to-toe.
“It’s a super exciting game with great players on both sides,” French 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, are slight favourites to go through according to most bookmakers, but Belgium tends to step up their game against the French if history is anything to go by. Of the 73 meetings between the teams, Belgium has won 30 and France have won 24 with the remaining 19 resulting in draws. But if Belgium is to reach their first world cup final, they have to do so by beating France at the world cup for the very first time.
France came through their quarter-final unscathed, and Deschamps has the entire squad to choose from. The only decision he has to make is whether to bring back Blaise Matuidi--who missed the last match due to suspension--in place of Tolisso. Belgium will be without their right back Thomas Meunier as he is suspended after picking up a second yellow card of the tournament against Brazil. Belgium does not have a direct replacement for the PSG defender and choosing a replacement will depend on the formation they choose to employ. If the Belgians choose to go with 3 at the back then, Nacer Chadli could be employed at the Right wing back position with Carrasco playing on the left-hand side. Whereas, if the Belgians retain the formation against Brazil, Alderwield could shift to the right back position with Vermaelen and Kompany as the two centre-backs.
Potential Belgium XI: Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, Chadli; E. Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku.
Potential France XI: Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez; Kante, Matuidi, Pogba; Griezmann, Mbappe, Giroud.
Defensively, France has the edge as the duo of Umtiti-Varane are arguably the best centre-back pairing of the tournament. Belgium has shuffled their back line a lot in their opening matches and have looked vulnerable at times, especially in their game against Japan. In the battle of the goalkeepers, Courtois has the edge over Lloris given his excellent form.
Both the teams have a solid midfield, with Kante and Fellaini doing excellent jobs in holding the run of play for their respective teams. France has the slightly better midfield due to the dynamicity and bench strength they have with the likes of Pogba, Fekir and Matuidi.
The forward lines of both the teams are in excellent form. France will rely on Mbappe--who has arguably been the player of the tournament-- to make runs past the ageing Kompany. Griezzman and Giroud have played well but are yet to display their full potential. Belgium has the best attacking trio with Lukaku providing the strength and the finishing, De Bruyne having vision and control on the ball and Hazard having the ability to make quick runs on the counter.
Belgium win by a difference of one goal.
The Belgians have finally matched up to their billing in this world cup. I expect them to continue their dream run to reach their first world cup final relying on their superior attack to punish France on the counter-attacks.