Belgium will have to overcome arguably world football’s strongest nation right now in France if they are to reach their first ever World Cup final, while Les Bleus aim to mark a third appearance.
Belgium have had a tough run to the last four stage, having to defeat the favourites Brazil, and come from 2-0 down against a rampant and impressive Japan. Unlike their French opponents, the Red Devils have won all five of their matches – also all in normal time, an unmatched record by any remaining sides. Roberto Martinez has developed a winning, attractive formula, with Belgium being the highest scoring nation by netting 14 goals to date – led by Manchester United talisman Romelu Lukaku, whose four finishes place him second in the scoring charts.
The tournament favourites France, coached by Didier Deschamps, won both their knockout matches with relative ease, including the exciting 4-3 win over Argentina – followed by a mature 2-0 defeat of Uruguay. Kylian Mbappe has been a star for the French, with the teenager scoring three from just four starts. France have only conceded in two games out of their five – a penalty to the Socceroos, and the three against Argentina – indicating that defensive structure is their main strength. Despite just winning one tournament ever, they are currently in a golden era, as a win against Belgium will ensure they have reached national football’s pinnacle in half of the past six opportunities. France will also want to exorcise the demons haunting them from their shock Euro 2016 loss on home turf to Portugal.
Key Battle – The midfields
On paper, France do have the better individual players – especially in midfield – with the trio of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Corentin Tolisso or Blaise Matuidi justifying why they all ply their trade in Europe’s elite clubs. Belgium’s midfield quartet is not individually brilliant, but their versatility and balance combined with the assistance of narrow wingers Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard – who drop into the midfield often – ensures they have had the most tactically sound middle unit throughout the whole tournament.
France will suffer most with Belgium’s width, as all of their opponents have, due to their workhorse wing-back duo of Nacer Chadli and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. Chadli, a natural winger, was signed by Tottenham in 2013 and failed to make significant impression in the Premier League, including his two-year stint at West Brom, but has found his feet under Martinez’s guidance in a new left wing-back position. Due to Hazard and De Bruyne’s tendency to be fluid and drop centrally, both wings have space for Chadli and Carrasco to penetrate. The loss of Thomas Meunier to suspension though is big, as it loses the balance Chadli and Meunier found in the quarter-final with one attacking and one defensive-minded wing-back.
Centrally, neither side plays with a natural 10, relying on other players to occupy the areas. France will see Belgium most vulnerable when they isolate the pairing of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini, despite both being very established and important for the national team. Fellaini has always been erratic and inconsistent, while Witsel has never played at a higher domestic level than the Portuguese league and has played in China over the past couple of seasons. Kante, the fulcrum of France’s midfield, has announced himself as the Premier League’s superior central-midfielder over the past three campaigns, with his bullish approach integral to cutting down opposition forays. His game has now expanded into being an accomplished distributor, complementing Tolisso’s box-to-box ability, and Pogba’s flair and creativity. Belgium likes to counter from the midfield, shown by their preference to start with two holding-midfielders, but France are not typically susceptible to such attacks, as Kante sits deeper than his midfield partners.
Ultimately, the more mature unit will win the battle, as France will have to be patient to break down a resolute structure, while Belgium will also need keep players behind the ball when out of possession and then also have ample options forward. Martinez was praised for his ‘tactical victory’ over Tite in the quarter-final, and it seems that this specific battle and the match itself will be heavily influenced by decisions from the sidelines.
Matuidi returns to the fold after serving his suspension, and is a chance to replace Tolisso, which could mean for a more defensive French midfield. Otherwise, the picture should be identical, with change usually proving counter-productive at this stage of such an important competition.
France expected XI: Lloris; Pavard, Umtiti, Varane, Hernandez; Matuidi, Kante, Pogba; Griezmann, Mbappe, Giroud
Meunier is the sole exclusion for the Belgians, with Carrasco expecting to regain his spot.
Belgium expected XI: Courtois; Alderweired, Kompany, Vertonghen; Carrasco, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli; De Bruyne, Hazard; Lukaku
France has 24 wins against Belgium, drawing 19 and losing 30. The statistics are swayed by a dominant period in the 1950s and 60s where the two faced each other often and Belgium went unbeaten in eight. They have faced just five times in the 2000s and 2010s.
Belgium shot off to a 3-0 lead, then a 4-1 advantage during their last encounter in 2015, before two late French goals pegged the final score back to 4-3. Fellaini netted twice for the victors, with Radja Nainggolan, Eden Hazard, Mathieu Valbuena, Nabil Fekir and Dimitri Payet all scoring in the high scoring affair.
This game promises to be more than tense, with both sides having equally brilliant success thus far. France will be the favourite, but Belgium’s victory over Brazil proves the underdog status will only work in their favour. France have more to prove as a collective, but Belgium have names with expectations to star and thrust them into their first ever final. Chances will probably be few and far between, as semi-finals are typically very conservative affairs. The Les Bleus midfield seems slightly ahead on paper, but this one is destined to not be sorted in the regular 90.
France 2 Belgium 1 AET