A battle of emigrants, literally...

Amol Gokhale
Tuesday, 10 July 2018

France are hoping to emulate their success in 1998, while their European counterparts will play in their first semi-final in 32 years.

St Petersburg: In Belgian city called Bruges, there is a ‘Frites Museum’ which showcases the history of fries, more commonly known as ‘French Fries’ as France and Belgium have never settled the issue of who actually invented the delicious potato preparation. But it is widely accepted that it was Belgians, who US troops mistook as French, and hence French Fries.

These two neighbouring countries, who get along very well, might want to keep their politeness and affection for the other country for one night when France takes on Belgium in the first semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup at the St Petersburg Stadium here on Tuesday night.

Another multi-layered clash promises to be a mouth-watering one especially after both scored eye-pleasing victories in the knockout rounds. France thumped Argentina 4-3 in thrilling Round of 16 match before putting in a shift to beat Uruguay 2-0 to reach the last four.

Meanwhile, Belgium staged a remarkable comeback against Japan to win 3-2 before showing their class in a 2-1 win over five-times champions Brazil in the quarters.

Known faces

Too many friendships will be on the line on Tuesday as many friends from club football, who mostly ply their trade in England, face each other. Belgium captain Eden Hazard and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois face their Chelsea team-mates midfielder N’Golo Kante and striker Olivier Giroud. Paul Pogba faces Manchester United club mates Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku, the list can go on.

But, one name that strikes the most is of Belgium assistant coach, Thierry Henry. The France legend is working alongside Roberto Martinez for past few months and now has a task to plot a downfall of his own World Cup-winning captain-- Didier Deschamps, while French players are eager to prove that their country’s leading goal scorer is on the wrong side of the fence.

The fact that both teams know inside out how their opponents play is going to a double-edged squad as Martinez and Deschamps try to come up with a strategy to unlock their opponent.

Tactical battles

The small tactical battles in the different parts of the pitch are going to be crucial in determining the outcome of the game and decide who will head to Moscow to play the final on July 15 and who will stay back in the city to play the third place match at the same venue on July 14.

Hazard and Lukaku combined with Kevin De Bruyne in devastating effect to rattle Brazilian backline and the young French defence of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti will have their task cut out.

The Belgian front three are well supported by Fellaini and Alex Witsel in the middle of the park. They will come up against ever-reliable N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba. French gaffer might have a slight headache about whom to field as the third member of midfield after Corentin Tolisso impressed against Uruguay in place of suspended Blaise Matuidi, who can return to starting line-up.

The attacking trident of Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe are ever menacing with electric pace of the latter two and the aerial prowess of Giroud. Belgian backline of Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen are on the wrong side of 30, while Toby Alderweireld is 29, these numbers will certainly make it tough for them to keep up with the electric pace that French frontline boasts.

Thibaut Courtois had one of the best nights in Belgian jersey against Brazil as he kept the likes of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho at bay with athletic saves, while the image of French custodian Hugo Lloris spitting out a dragonfly in a match against Uruguay has already been a sensation on the internet.

Previous meetings: The European rivals have a long history, facing each other 73 times. France have won 24, Belgium 30, with 19 draws.

Griezmann the key

Antoine Griezmann has scored seven goals in his last six knockout-stage matches in major tournaments, beginning with his Golden Boot-clinching displays at Euro 2016. On the other hand, Eden Hazard has been directly involved in 14 goals in his last 14 games for Belgium (eight goals, six assists).

Nine different scorers

Belgium have had nine different goalscorers at this year’s World Cup (excluding own goals). Only Italy in 2006 and France in 1982 (10 each) have ever had more in a single tournament. Belgium have scored more goals than any other team at the tournament (14).

Mbappe leads the way

France’s Kylian Mbappe (three goals) is the highest scoring teenager in a World Cup tournament since Pele scored six in 1958. Pele hit a hat-trick against France in the semi-final of that tournament and is the last player under 20 to score in the final four of a World Cup tournament.

Unbeaten Streak

Roberto Martinez’ss side are unbeaten in 23 competitive matches. Their last defeat in a competitive match was to Wales in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. Belgium have reached the World Cup semi-finals for only the second time, losing out to eventual winners Argentina in 1986.

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