World Cup 2018: Ruthless France, canny and creative Belgium square off
The 2018 World Cup has often been a surreal spectacle. Very little has gone to plan, underdogs have risen to the occasion and knocked the stuffing out of favorites, goals have flown in, VAR has changed the complexion of many matches and the month-long party in the streets of an otherwise somber country has made for a truly entertaining event for the fans.
The football itself has been crazy. How many had predicted a semi-final between England and Croatia before the tournament began? How many had predicted that England would have to get past the combined might of Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden to reach the last four after 28 years, and then face Croatia for a chance to get into the final?
Gone to plan, more or less
The other half of the draw has thrown up a more conventional but mouthwatering semi-final. Yet, it isn't the semi-final everyone would have predicted once we reached the 2nd round. After all, it was the half that had Brazil and Argentina for starters, two eternal pre-tournament favorites who have already bitten the dust.
It also had two-time World Champions Uruguay. The last two sides have been knocked out by another former winner - France who seem to be the current favorite to repeat the feat as the other three teams find themselves in relatively unknown territory, especially in the contemporary age.
Belgium have had a more turbulent ride, on the brink against Japan, they engineered a perfect comeback to avoid another great shock before out-thinking Tite's heavyweight Brazil in the quarterfinal.
The French and the Belgians arrived in the World Cup as two teams with the most attacking firepower of them all and yet have taken very contrasting routes to reach this stage.
The French have in their repertoire the combined might of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, two attackers with (on-paper) complementary styles who could unlock any defense on their day.
While Pogba prefers a central play-making role, Griezmann is a wide forward who loves to cut in from the wing; however, none of the two, despite contributing to French victories, have really jelled well or been at their best in this World Cup.
Against Argentina, in a heavyweight second-round encounter, the French were devastating for ten minutes, a spell in which they turned the game around. But one must remember that that response was engendered after being a goal down and with their World Cup hopes tottering.
In general, France have been turgid but effective. Didier Deschamps loves to ensure that they do not lose before going for a win, and it often leads to the right result but little in the way of a spectacle.
The epitome of this approach was achieved against Uruguay in a dour and ill-tempered game where both sides rarely created any chances and France got two goals and held on to them resolutely.
While Raphael Varane had opened the scoring with a dexterous header, Griezmann benefited from a woeful error by the goalie and France got the rub of the green.
Kylian Mbappe has been the standout attacking player for Les Bleus and his blistering pace cut open the feeble Argentinian defense in the 2nd round. The teenager has a mean shot and great dribbling skills to boot.
His charitable endeavors have also been praised. Yet, Mbappe turned in a poor performance against Uruguay and was heavily criticized for an instance of play-acting in the second half. In Olivier Giroud, Ousmane Dembele and Nabil Fekir, they have an enviable arsenal of attacking resources, but Deschamps' style might not be accommodating to all of them.
Belgium love to play
Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, this triumvirate of attackers have struck gold throughout the tournament. They are the highest scorers of the tournament and have played a very attractive brand of football, studded with quick fluid passes and blistering counter attacks.
Lukaku has shown that he is not only a formidable striker but is also willing to shoulder responsibility when deployed in a deeper position as demonstrated by his decisive role in De Bruyne's goal against Brazil.
As for De Bruyne, he is one of the most dangerous and complete attackers in the world, and has brought his whole array of skills to the biggest stage. He has been ably complemented by Hazard's creative genius.
What Belgium lacked in the early stages was defensive steel but the introduction of Marouane Fellaini against Brazil was a key move by Roberto Martinez whose physical shield against Brazil gave the defensive line much-needed protection.
France looked solid against Uruguay, Varane and Samuel Umtiti at the heart of their defense have finally got a partnership going after previous lapses. Hugo Lloris is in stupendous form between the sticks and N'Golo Kante has been solid in midfield.
Their 4-2-3-1 formation will certainly be a tough one to break down and it is hard to believe that this team had leaked three goals against Argentina. One would expect France to be cautious, building from the back, eschewing flair for pragmatism once again.
However, they have individuals who can break down defenses single-handedly on their day. Belgium allowed Brazil all the possession in a tactical move. Vincent Kompany and co showed they can withstand pressure for long stretches when push comes to shove.
Thibaut Courtois in goal is also in the form of his life. Against a more wary France though, Martinez might again ask his world-class attackers to take the initiative in constructing openings.
No one is going to throw caution to the wind though, and strategic maneuverings might be the order of the day - it is a World Cup semi-final after all.