STAR PREVIEW: France v Belgium

France v Belgium
FIFA World Cup 2018 Semi-Final
19:00 BBC One

From 32 teams we now have just four left as we embark on an all European set of semi-finals at this World Cup, and the blockbuster meeting is on Tuesday as France take on Belgium.

Whilst this has been a tournament of upsets – evidenced by the fact that there of the four favourites pre-tournament have not made it to the semis – but for France reaching this stage alone was the minimum of expectations for some here.

Didier Deschamps men, beaten finalists on home soil in Euro 2016, have been hotly fancied to atone for such defeat and after making it through their group, have improved rapidly through the knockout stages.

Playing an open Argentina side was of great benefit for them in what was a fantastic last 16 game which they won 4-3, but they had a much more difficult defensive task against a Uruguay side that had been previously unbeaten in the tournament and always looked assured once they had earned the lead through Raphael Varane’s 33rd minute header.

This Belgian side, which has a 100% record in the tournament, is an even tougher test. Roberto Martinez’s side have had to fight tooth and nail through the knockouts to get here, and it might be thanks to their manager that they’ve managed to get through.

For much of their last ditch 3-2 win against Japan they were all at sea, with their fine side totally mismatched, but on came Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, and in the space of just 25 minutes they were level before Kevin De Bryune made a lung-busting run that set up Chadli’s late goal.

That had the feeling of a defining moment for Belgium and under that new system they never looked back, with a super start against Brazil the catalyst for a fine win. Kevin De Bryune is now free, in the same position that he occupies for Manchester City, Eden Hazard is having what might be his best ever World Cup, and Romelu Lukaku is either scoring goals or making crucial runs – see his dummy for the Chadli goal that took them through against Japan.

If those three, and Thibaut Courtois (the hero with a brilliant late save against Brazil) turn up on form, then Belgium can take any side in the world as they proved and there was no lack do resilience as Brazil made changes and put huge amounts of late pressure on the Belgian goal.

They will not need to make any changes, but an enforced one could be the most crucial – Thomas Meunier picked up a yellow card which rules him out of this showdown and it is likely that Toby Alderweireld switches from the centre to play on the right hand side.

That provides a big opportunity to Kylan Mbappe, sensational against Argentina when marauding in open space, to double up with Benjamin Pavard and Les Bleus also have Blaise Matuidi ready to return and fresh from a one-match suspension. Matuidi tucks in on the left to provide supporting Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. Pogba has notably hit form through the World Cup and Olivier Giroud has also brought Antoine Griezmann into the game a lot more.

This will inevitably be close – all games of this type are – and much of the battle could be in midfield between Kante and Fellaini, with both teams having the weapons to win the game in a moment. Belgium’s best approach has been to go on the offensive and they ought to present a much tougher offensive test than Uruguay, whilst France should be more balanced and perhaps more clinical than Brazil were in the quarter-finals.

This could be a little more open than traditional World Cup semi-finals – in the last two there has been at least one with both teams scoring and perhaps that is the best play here.

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