With the quarterfinals done and dusted, there are just four teams left standing at the 2018 World Cup. Out of Belgium, France, England and Croatia, who will book a place in the final on July 15?
Belgium vs. France
It’s a game between two European neighbours and arguably the two teams that have produced the most outstanding performances so far.
Belgium’s so-called golden generation have fallen short in recent tournaments, failing to deliver at the past two European Championships and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but their destruction of the Brazilians in the quarterfinal was the performance of a team that believes it can become world champions.
France, who laboured through their group with only three goals in three games against Australia, Peru and Denmark, showcased their incredible depth of talent when teenager Kylian Mbappe led their second-round dismantling of Argentina in Kazan.
France are perhaps peaking ahead of their time, with Didier Deschamps’ young team viewed by many as not likely to mature into potential World Cup winners until Qatar 2022.
Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann will almost certainly all be around in four years’ time, but for Belgium, this World Cup has to be their moment. With so many players in or approaching their 30s, Roberto Martinez’s men have to grasp this opportunity or risk seeing it evaporate forever.
But Belgium — led by outstanding efforts from Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku — were so hot against Brazil, they go into this game against their big-brother neighbour as favourites.
France have the greater pedigree — winners in 1998 and finalists in 2006 — but Belgium are the team that seems to have come together at just the right time in Russia.
The Belgians, having kept Neymar quiet against Brazil, must find a way to do the same with Mbappe, but Vincent Kompany’s return to fitness ensures that Martinez can rely on the Manchester City captain’s experience to marshal the defence.
France, in turn, have to find a way to nullify De Bruyne and Hazard, but the Belgians possess more match winners.
Croatia vs. England
An unlikely semifinal matchup at the start of the tournament, Croatia and England now stand on the verge of the World Cup final after negotiating a favourable route to reach this stage of the competition.
England have eliminated Colombia and Sweden, while Croatia, so impressive having won their group with three victories, have been taken to penalties by Denmark and Russia in the knockout rounds.
But having twice endured the draining yet ultimately successful ordeal of extra time and penalties, the big question over Croatia going into Wednesday’s semifinal will be how much they have left in the tank.
Will goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, the shootout hero against Denmark and Russia, be fully fit after appearing to injure his hamstring late in Saturday’s game against Russia?
England have no such fitness concerns after coasting to a 2-0 quarterfinal win against Sweden in normal time in Samara, but manager Gareth Southgate does have tactical questions to answer before the Croatia clash.
Should he break up the attacking midfield trio of Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli to accommodate an extra holding midfielder (Eric Dier) to help snuff out the threat of Luka Modric, or did their combined performance against Sweden make a change a gamble?
If it boils down to a football contest in Moscow, Croatia’s ability on the ball will be a huge test for England.
The two countries have a colourful history, having met seven times since Croatia earned its independence in the early 1990s.
England won 4-2 at Euro 2004 in the only meeting at a major tournament, but the most famous encounter was in November 2007, when Croatia’s 3-2 win at Wembley denied England a place at Euro 2008 and earned manager Steve McClaren the nickname of the “Wally with the Brolly” after he forlornly patrolled the touchline under an umbrella.
The past two meetings have ended in big wins — 4-1 and 5-1 — for England, so Southgate’s men will have no fear on Wednesday, and their extra energy could be decisive.
Kante must repeat display vs. Messi – Deschamps
France coach Didier Deschamps is hoping that N’Golo Kante can repeat his heroics from the 4-3 World Cup round-of-16 win over Argentina when Les Bleus take on Belgium in Tuesday’s semifinal against Belgium in Saint Petersburg.
The Chelsea midfielder kept the legendary Lionel Messi relatively quiet against the South Americans and will come up against Blues teammate Eden Hazard as the Belgian captain and playmaker.
Speaking at a press conference at Krestovsky Stadium, Deschamps admitted that Kante will be key, but that it is the case each game he is involved in.
“N’Golo will have an important role, like he does in each match,” said the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship-winning former captain. “There will be some tweaks, though, which will suit us better.
“N’Golo is an essential element because of his work rate, the number of balls he recovers for us, as well as his positioning — he often cuts out cross-field passes aimed at their attack.
“We saw N’Golo up against Argentina’s Messi — he was given a specific role, and he did exactly what was asked of him.”
Deschamps revealed that he has prepared for a number of different scenarios against Belgium on Tuesday, but that Les Bleus have been doing that since their arrival in Russia anyway.
“My team will be ready for a variety of situations,” he said. “The Belgians did not reach this stage playing one style of football — they changed things up against Brazil.
“Will they do it again, against us? It is a possibility. I will make sure that my players are ready to play in different shapes and systems, which we alter mid-match.
“It will be nothing specific to Belgium — we already did the same for our other opponents.”
This semifinal will also see Deschamps cross paths with former international teammate Thierry Henry, who is now assistant to Belgium coach Roberto Martinez.
“Thierry and I met when he was very young, and I was sure that he would go far,” the French coach said of Henry. “I am happy for him for everything that he went on to do.
“This will not be an easy situation for him and it sometimes happens at club level. This, however, is a cut above that — Thierry will be on the bench and against his country, his nation. He knew very well that this was a possibility. Personally, it will be of great pleasure to see him again on Tuesday.”
Goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris echoed Deschamps’ sentiments on Henry and called the occasion “special.”
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