After 60 matches, 157 goals and plenty of excitement, only four teams remain in the battle for global football’s most coveted trophy. Many of the World Cup’s pre-tournament favourites have bowed out, and the final four consists of Belgium and Croatia (both of whom have never won the trophy) and England, who won in 1966 but haven’t looked like doing so again in the intervening years. Rounding out the quartet are the French, who are the only main pre-tournament favourite to make it this far but are no certainty to lift the trophy against some very dangerous opposition. The two semi-finals are very open, and there are certainly no guarantees as to who will be victorious when all is said and done. With two thrilling semi-finals contests to look forward to, and some brilliant players on display, the rest of this tournament won’t be short on excitement. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out, starting with the high-stakes clash between France and Belgium.
France vs Belgium
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Behich 81 og), Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
France 1 (Mbappé 34), Peru 0
Denmark 0, France 0
Round of 16
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68), Argentina 3 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75), Panama 0
Belgium 5 (E Hazard 6 pen, 51, Lukaku 16, 45+3, Batshuayi 90), Tunisia 2 (Bronn 18, Khazri 90+3)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4), Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76), Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)
France have built into the tournament well, improving with every game and looking very well-drilled in a comfortable 2-0 win over Uruguay. Belgium are sure to present a sterner test, and it will be interesting to see how Didier Deschamps approaches the game. Under their former captain, France have displayed a tendency to sit back and hit their opposition on the break, a strategy which gives Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé the space to catch defenders out with their speed, smarts and skill. Holding it all together is main striker Olivier Giroud, who is yet to score a goal at this tournament but allows others to thrive by holding the ball up in attack and allowing his teammates to drift into dangerous positions. France’s key strength lies in midfield, where N’Golo Kanté provides a tireless screen for the defence and Paul Pogba combines an imposing physique with incredible skills. They are starting to work together well, and they will be hard to beat.
With Romelu Lukaku leading the line, and receiving brilliant service from Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, it’s not surprising that Belgium like to attack. In their first few matches they played a three-man defence and largely controlled the game, relying on their talent to break their opponents down. Then they came up against Brazil, after an unconvincing come-from-behind win over Japan. They weren’t expected to go through, but a switch to a more conventional four man defence paid dividends and the impact of de Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku on the break was enough to put two goals past Brazil. A suspension to Thomas Meunier, the only genuine right-back in the squad, means that changes will have to be made, and it will be interesting to see if Roberto Martínez reverts to his earlier approach against a French team that could be more potent than the Brazilians. The bare bones of the side are likely to remain the same, but the identity of Meunier’s replacement will dictate Martínez’s approach to the match.
1. Who will replace Thomas Meunier?
Belgium don’t have another proper right-back in their squad, so whoever comes in for the in-form Meunier will be a makeshift solution. Nacer Chadli’s versatility means he can deputise, but that will create a hole in the midfield trio (which Chadli was a part of). Either way, Chadli is not a natural right-back, and playing him in an unfamiliar position could cause big problems. Thomas Vermaelen could come into the side, and his selection would likely mean a reversion to a back three (this time with centre-back Jan Vertonghen in a more attacking and not necessarily natural role). The suspension of the only player in Belgium’s side without a natural replacement is sure to cause plenty of headaches for Martínez, and Meunier’s form means his absence will have ramifications.
2. Will either side take the game on?
Pre-tournament, the answer to this question would be a definite yes. France tend to invite their opponents to come at them, and Belgium’s strategy was defined by their attacking prowess and ability to exert pressure on their opponents. Then Belgium completely flipped their strategy to beat the Brazilians, and it worked wonders. As a result, Martínez will be very tempted to take a similar approach against France, based on a solid defence, a more powerful midfield (de Bruyne was moved forward against Brazil, allowing the more defensive-minded Marouane Fellaini to take his place) and a potent counter-attacking threat. If France decide to sit back as well, this game could become a defensive battle despite the attacking talent on display. It will be interesting to see which team looks to take control of possession and territory, or if neither is prepared to open themselves up to the other’s counter-attack.
3. Can France keep the Belgians out?
They may have beaten South American powerhouses Argentina and Uruguay on the way here, but France’s defence hasn’t yet come up against a top-quality attack. Argentina were off colour all tournament, and their three goals against the French belied their inability to really trouble Hugo Lloris’ goalHiHu, with said goals coming from a brilliant strike, a fortuitous deflection and an injury time header. Uruguay were missing Edinson Cavani, and without their star striker their attacking play fell apart. In Belgium, France will face an in-form attack with plenty of goals in them, and their largely untroubled defence will be in for a tough examination. If they can’t hold up, their hopes of lifting the World Cup will almost certainly fall by the wayside.
N’Golo Kanté’s job description isn’t particularly spectacular: he runs around in midfield, attempts to win the ball, and passes it to an open player, then repeats the cycle for 90 minutes. It may sound simple, but it’s this hard work in midfield that holds the French together. Kanté can run all day while performing his key role, and his anticipation means that he keeps appearing wherever the ball is. His ability to continually pick off passes means that most of France’s opponents struggle to get past him, with their most dangerous attacks cut off before they can even reach the final third, and he also allows Pogba to thrive. France will be relying on him to perform at his best against Belgium, and such is his consistency that he probably will.
Kevin de Bruyne’s start to the tournament was underwhelming. Placed in the centre of midfield to accommodate the undeniable quality of Hazard, Lukaku and Dries Mertens, he was unable to have his usual impact on games and he struggled to show his unique attacking gifts. Then he got a chance in a more advanced role against Brazil, and he was brilliant. He brings other players into the action, and he caused massive issues for Brazil’s previously solid defence when he found space. He can play incredible passes, and his combination with Hazard will be a major concern for Deschamps.
Blaise Matuidi has returned from suspension, and he is likely to come back into the side with Corentin Tolisso making way. Otherwise, the French aren’t likely to make any changes to the team that beat Uruguay, sticking with the line-up that has served them so well throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.
Meunier won’t play, and his enforced absence is likely to be Belgium’s only change. The main options to replace him are Youri Tielemans, who can play in the middle, or Vermaelen, whose inclusion may herald a return to a back three. Centre-back Toby Alderweireld could also move to right-back, but such a move would leave Belgium’s two defensive mainstays, Alderweireld and Vertonghen, playing out of position. The 4-3-3 was so effective against Brazil that Martínez may keep it going despite Meunier’s absence.
Possible Team (4-3-3): Courtois – Chadli, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, Tielemans; Lukaku, de Bruyne, E Hazard.
This game is very hard to call, but the pace and dynamism of both attacks means that the team who scores first is likely to come away with the win, and could easily win by a big margin. Both teams have plenty of goals in them, and a free-flowing classic is a definite possibility. The French look like the favourites thanks to slightly more consistent performances and the massive loss of Meunier, but Belgium’s quality should not be underestimated and they will come ready to fight. This one could be a classic. France 3-1.