After a number of shocks, we’re finally down to the four best teams left in the 2018 FIFA World Cup – with the first semi-final being contested between France (predictably) and Belgium (not quite as predictably).
Interestingly, these two teams, at least on paper, are quite similar. Both possess exceptional squads with quality not just in their starting elevens, but also ample substitutions that can turn a game. Both have a set of forwards that any team in the world would be jealous of, and experienced defenders protecting world-class goal keepers. With such equally matched teams, where will the game be won and lost?
Kylian Mbappe v Nacer Chadli: Since Belgium uses wing-backs, and considering that Nacer Chadli isn’t traditionally a defensive player, he will be a mismatch against the speedy Mbappe. Belgium’s manager Martinez may predict that this won’t be a good idea and could change his starting lineup because of it, but if Chadli does start at left wing-back it will be a point of weakness for France to exploit.
Kevin De Bruyne v Kante/Varane: In Belgium’s match against Brazil, De Bruyne was employed as a ‘false 9’ striker, a role used to confuse the opposition’s central midfielders and defenders by moving between those two lines. It was highly successful against Brazil and could pose a headache for France, as the communication between the midfield and defence will have to be on point to make sure De Bruyne doesn’t enjoy any open space.
Hazard v Pavard: France’s young right-back Pavard has been a revelation this tournament, but he’ll come up against his toughest mark yet in Eden Hazard. Hazard pulled Brazil’s defence all over the show, and if the young Pavard isn’t careful, he’ll be led a merry dance as well. Staying disciplined with his positioning and not giving away careless fouls against Hazard will be his main responsibility, but it may be a tricky task.
Provided that Blaise Matuidi is fit, he will likely be preferred on France’s left side of midfield over Tolisso, who started against Brazil. However, other than small tweaks, both managers are likely to name largely unchanged sides from the quarter-final victories.
Since their may be a stalemate due to equal quality in attack and defence from both outfits, it’s likely that the battle in midfield will decide who gets the most goal-scoring chances. Kante and Pogba in France’s midfield are gifted, but Pogba contributes little defensively which could leave Kante with too many gaps to cover. Belgium’s midfield is stronger in the tackle and more proactive in winning the ball back, so the advantage may actually lie with the Belgians.
Although on paper it looks like Belgium stack up equally to France, a lot of psychology and temperament will dictate how the game pans out. France have won World Cups before, they’re a nation with solid footballing pedigree – while Belgium will move into uncharted territory if they win this match, having never appeared in a final before. Do the Belgians believe they can win it, or will France’s quality and confidence give them the edge?
Predicted Result: France 2 – 2 Belgium (France win on penalties)