France’s forward Olivier Giroud (middle) at training session with teammates at the Saint Petersburg Stadium, in Saint Petersburg, on the eve of their semi-final match against Belgium…yesterday. PHOTO: AFP
Anothe day, another battle, but this is the type of war the neutrals relish. It is the first semifinal match of the ongoing Russia 2018 World Cup and the gladiators are some of the finest artistes of the game still left in the quest for football’s ultimate trophy.
Belgium and France are two neighbouring countries with a lot of things in common, including language, but inside the St. Petersburg Stadium this evening, the teams would shed the toga of friendship and fight for a right for the opportunity to become the world’s best football playing nation.
For both countries, this is the last hurdle to the right to play at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15. The game promises a goal feast considering the attacking strength of both teams, the quality midfield expected to be on display and two of the world’s best goalkeepers ready to prove their mettle.
This is a recap of the third-place game between the teams at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where the Mitchel Platini-led Les Blues defeated Jan Coulemans and his friends to win the bronze medal. That was the last time France and Belgium met in any competitive game, but the Belgians have held the upper hand in recent friendlies, winning the last one 4-3 at the Stade de France in 2015.
However, this match is far from being a friendly for both teams, with France, which has the second youngest squad after Nigeria, eager to correct the mistakes of 2006, where dismissal for key star, Zinedine Zidane, contributed to the Les Blues losing the title to Italy in Germany.
Looking ahead to a tough challenge against Edin Hazard, the powerful Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and mates, one of France’s break out stars of the competition, defender Benjamin Pavard said his team is not scared by the quality in Belgium’s attack.
“We’re not scared of anyone. We’ve been confident from the start and we’re not asking any questions of ourselves,” he told the media on Sunday.He talks highly of the steely mentality instilled in the team by Coach Didier Deschamps, who won the trophy in 1998 as captain of his country.
“He motivates the troops with strong words. We’re ready to go to war with him,” the 22-year-old defender said.Belgian defender, Thomas Vermaelen, knows that his side still has many of the world’s best players to contend with in St Petersburg today, but he is not unmindful of Mbappe’s special threat.
“For me, Kylian Mbappe is the best player in the French selection,” he told reporters. “He is extremely fast and can decide every match in a flash. But also players like [Ousmane] Dembele, [Olivier] Giroud or [N’Golo] Kante have their specific, strong qualities. It’s just a very strong team, but for me Mbappe is the best.”
Belgium, under former Everton boss, Roberto Martinez, has the most potent attack in this competition with 14 goals in its five World Cup matches.Assisted by former Arsenal captain, Thierry Henry, who was one of the stars of France 1998 triumph, Martinez has built an attacking side that never stops bombing forward no matter the opposition.This attacking prowess was demonstrated in the round of 16 games against Japan; where Belgium rose from 0-2 down to win 3-2 with the clincher coming just before the final whistle.
Both sides possess quality goalkeepers in Thibaut Courtois (Belgium) and Hugo Lloris (France), but the French captain is the less reliable of the duo. Lloris, however, is a commanding presence in his area, who serves as the second coach on the pitch.While the teams are loaded with classy midfielders and defenders, the neutral fan would be glued on the attackers, with some of the best in the trade ready to shoot at sight.
Belgium’s attack revolves around Hazard, but Lukaku is the arrowhead, whose ability to shield the ball from defenders often confound his opponents. Of course, there is the ever-probing De Bruyne and Nacer Chadli, whose interventions from the bench has so often rescued the Reds.Mbappe is the attacking sensation in the French side, but one of the best left footers in the game, Antoine Griezmann has the potential to wreck any team with his fiery shots, ask Uruguay’s Fernando Muslera. In former Arsenal star, Giroud, France has an attacker, who can hold up the ball, allowing Mbappe and Griezmann to create space for the killer pass. One of the best goals of the competition was France’s fourth goal against Argentina, which move was started in the French midfield to Giroud, who laid a one-touch pass for Mbappe to finish.
“I try to create gaps for my teammates,” Giroud said. “It’s my unselfish side.”Today’s semifinal is the 74th time the teams will meet in all the competitions.The Belgians opted to remain in Moscow and train in the town of Dedovsk, which is the team’s base camp.The team would not train at the St. Petersburg Stadium before the game, which is unusual because teams normally have the opportunity to feel the pitch before every game.