For only the fifth time in the history of the Fifa World Cup, the last four teams will all be European. France and Belgium will face off in the first semi-final in Saint Petersburg Tuesday. Both the teams are high on confidence and showed some great performances throughout the tournament.
The duel between the two European powerhouses will be held at the wonderful Saint Petersburg Stadium, locally known as Krestovsky Stadium. It is situated beside the Finnish Gulf, has a seating capacity of 65,000 and has been the home of Zenit Saint Petersburg since 2017.
Both the teams boast some of Europe’s best players. Solid performances in every department of the game have taken these free-scoring sides in the last four. Both the sides are title favourites, despite some minor defensive lapses during the knockout stages.
The Les Blues, who had an average group stage performance, are unbeaten in the tournament. Their main strength – speed – came into the limelight when they outclassed two-time champion Argentina with teenage sensation Kylan Mbappe leading the way. With an in-form Antoine Griezmann playing beside the PSG striker, who has scored three goals in the Russia World Cup, the French attack will be at the centre of attention in this neck-and-neck tie.
France’s attacking play was impressive against Argentina and they replicated the heroics to beat Uruguay in the quarters. But now, they have the most spectacular and complete team of the tournament in front of them. The Belgians have scored 14 goals and conceded five.
Didier Deschamps will have N’Golo Kante in defensive midfield to neutralise Belgium’s biggest threat - Eden Hazard. This clash between the Chelsea team-mates will be a key factor in determining the result.
France will also have to tackle the threat posed by the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, who proved his class in a more forward role by scoring and getting involved in every possible Belgium attack against Brazil. The return of Blaise Matuidi from suspension will boost the 2006 finalist.
Speaking of Belgium, France defender Benjamin Pavard, who scored a spectacular goal from outside the box against Argentina, said: "This is a super exciting game with great players on both sides. It's going to be a man's match, and we will have to step up our playing level."
The Red Devils, who are enjoying their best major tournament finals since Mexico 1986, are the only side to have won all five games en route to the semi-final. The last time they played in the penultimate round was 32 years ago when they lost to eventual champion Argentina, courtesy a brace from the tournament’s best player Diego Maradona.
That result set them up for the third-place match against France, which the Les Blues won 4-2. This time around, the Red Devils have the golden generation who are proving themselves with each game.
They will arguably take to the field as favourite after their masterful win against five-time champion Brazil. Though the Red Devils will be without key player Thomas Meunier, who picked up his second booking, the depth of the squad was well proven when they fielded almost the whole bench in their win against the other semi-finalist England in their last group stage match.
Among many hot topics surrounding this match, one former player will be at the centre of attention, Belgium assistant coach Thierry Henry. This may be the only time that the French legend - who guided the Les Blues to the world title in 1998 at home - will be hoping for a French defeat as he is now working as the assistant to Belgium manager, Roberto Martinez.
So England have had the easiest route to the last four ever, eh?— Mark Douglas (@MsiDouglas) July 9, 2018
Here's the average @FIFAcom ranking of the five teams they've each faced to reach the semi-final so far...
France = 17
England = 22.2
Belgium = 29
Croatia = 30.4
Without Meunier in the squad, Martinez may be willing to switch to a classic 4-4-2 approach to adapt to France's tactics. There are possibilities that Nacer Chadli will start on the right, with Yannick Ferreira Carrasco on the left.
On the eve of the clash, Chadli said, "I was wondering if I would play football again six months ago. What is happening now is unreal."
Chadli has been injury-prone in recent times and missed out on a lot of action for West Bromwich Albion in the English Premier League.
Belgium are the most common opponent for France as Les Blues haven’t met any side more. They met overall 74 times but only twice at the World Cup with France winning on both the occasions.
And so the Belgian golden generation will have to prove their credentials once again and with such a great squad at their disposal, they won’t get a better opportunity.