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Belgium France. What we learned
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10 Jul 2018 05:19 PM EST

-by Steve Wright, Staff Writer; Image:Belgium vs France (Image Source:NDTV)

 

The first semi-final of the 2018 World Cup takes place in Saint Petersburg as Belgium faces France. The French have been ramping up throughout this tournament, with a big 4-3 win over Argentina in the Round of 16 being followed by a comfortable 2-0 victory over an Edinson Cavani-less Uruguay in the quarter-final. Belgium has found the knockout rounds to be a little tougher, rallying from two goals down to beat Japan 3-2, and then holding off a Brazilian comeback attempt to win their quarter-final 2-1.

Three Match Facts

  • The clash in the semi-final will be the 74th meeting between the two sides. Belgium has more wins overall (30 Belgium, 24 France) but the French have won all three meetings at major tournaments.

  • France has lost just one of its last 13 World Cup knockout games (excluding shootouts). That loss was to Germany in the 2014 quarter-finals

  • Belgium has never won a major tournament semi-final. They lost to Argentina in the 1986 World Cup and West Germany in the 1972 European Championships.

Tournament Outlook

We continue with the knockout action here as Belgium and France will go to extra time and penalties if needed to separate the two sides. The winner of this clash will go on to face either England or Croatia in the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday.

This is the only round of the knockout stage where both teams are guaranteed another game. The loser of the first semi-final will play the loser of the match between England and Croatia in the third place play-off in Saint Petersburg on Saturday.

Three Keys

What formation will Belgium play?

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez seemed pretty set on playing a 3-4-3 formation throughout this tournament. This system seemed to fit the style of his players, albeit requiring Kevin de Bruyne to play in a deeper role than expected. Brazil would have expected to see this formation too, which is why the Selecao were as surprised as anyone else when Martinez used a hybrid 4-3-3/4-4-2 against them.

It will be interesting to see what Belgium does with its linkup against France. The formation led to a win over Brazil, but the method was far from perfect. Belgium gave up chance after chance to the Braizlians and – on a more clinical day – they would have been knocked out at the quarter-final stage.

Going to three at the back again would seem awfully risky when going up against the pace and channel running ability of France’s Kylian Mbappe. The formation issue is clouded further because Thomas Meunier – realistically Belgium’s only true wingback – is ineligible for the game because of yellow card accumulation.

Martinez has to look at how Belgium played for the first 60 minutes against Brazil and see that four at the back is his best option. While Mbappe will be an issue on one flank, France doesn’t really have an attacking option to play on the left wing, meaning that Belgium could find some joy going forward on that side of the pitch.

Realistically the goal has to be to get De Bruyne into a position to dictate the game. That won’t happen if he is playing too deep and trying to protect his defenders.

Will the French front three click?

France may have the biggest attacking threat of any team left in this World Cup. Their front three of Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, and Antoine Griezmann brings a little bit of everything to the table. While this trio of players has been effective – especially when supported by the running and passing of Paul Pogba – it still feels like they have a couple of gears to shift into in order to really put rival teams to the sword.

Mbappe was on another planet in the game where France beat Argentina. Playing against a couple of the slowest center backs in the game, he was unplayable as he drove at them with power and pace. Griezmann has had his moments – usually of the clinical nature – but it is hard to say that he has played particularly well in any of France’s games. Giroud provides a presence and a deft touch, but he is another that you think there is more to come from.

The three still seem to be figuring out the best way to attack as a unit. Giroud is not going to beat anyone in a foot race, but he can provide the holdup play that Mbappe and Griezmann can work off of. The matchup of Mbappe running at Jan Vertonghen is one that coach Didier Deschamps should look to exploit, using Giroud to keep the central defenders busy and having Pogba tie up the defensively minded Marouane Fellaini.

Belgium has looked vulnerable defensively over the entire knockout stage. If the French front three do click then it could be enough to carry them to the final.

Eden Hazard vs. Benjamin Pavard

There are many individual battles on the pitch that could dictate the game, the one that is most key, however, will be on the left hand side of the Belgian attack.

Hazard might be the most skilled player – and the biggest star – left in this World Cup. Against Brazilian third-string right back Fagner, he went to town, keeping his width and beating his opponent one on one time and time again. He is a great outlet for Belgium as he has the pace and skill to commit a defender and either draw a foul or blow right past them. With Romelu Lukaku waiting in the box, he also has a huge target for his pinpoint crosses.

Pavard was seen as the weak link in the French defense heading into the World Cup, and his first few games did little to alter that perception. While he has improved as the tournament has gone on, he has yet to be tested like he will be against the Chelsea winger. If Hazard wins this battle then it will be a busier day for Hugo Lloris in the French goal.

 

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