France and Belgium became the two teams who navigated the gauntlet side of the bracket, beating Uruguay and Brazil respectively. Both have been deserving to get here and both deserve to win the tournament, but only one nation will move on to the Final for their shot at eternal glory.
In this preview I’m going to go through how each team got to this point, who’s been their best players, keys to winning the game and of course my pick.
Let’s get into how the Quarterfinals went down first…
France (2) Uruguay (0). It showed how much Uruguay missed Cavani, as Suarez was caught in positions he wasn’t comfortable in and couldn’t even get a shot off, let alone on goal. France shut them down completely and got a first half goal that gave them the momentum going into halftime. A Uruguay goalkeeping howler from Muslera sealed it as France advanced to their second Semifinal since ’98.
Brazil (1) Belgium (2). Belgium showed that they’re the golden generation for a reason as they took a 2-0 lead against Brazil 31 minutes in. Brazil responded how anyone would expect, with tons of pressure and creativity going forward but they couldn’t muster more than one goal past the stern back line of Belgium and the goalkeeping of Courtois. Belgium’s counter attack stayed potent and Lukaku proved he is the best all around striker left in the tournament.
Sweden (0) England (2). In England’s best performance of the tournament, they did the one thing I said they needed to do to beat this Sweden team; get an early goal. A Harry Maguire header gave them that lead and a Deli Alli goal off of a beautiful pass from Lingard sealed it for the Three Lions. What said a lot about their performance was that Kane was quiet and they still outmatched the Swedes. It was all made possible by Sterling making great runs getting in behind, Lingard providing from the midfield with a 93% pass accuracy from 46 passes, Harry Maguire getting his trademarked header goal and Pickford proving he may now be the goalie of the tournament.
Croatia (2) Russia (2) (Pens 4-3). Back-to-back 120 minutes and penalties for both of these teams as Croatia prevailed again. Although Croatia were clearly the dominant side, a screamer from Russia in the first half let doubt creep in. They responded before halftime and even took the lead in extra time, only to switch off on a corner and allow the costly equalizer. But their quality showed in the penalty shootout, outlasting the Russians 4 to 3.
All-Time Record: 261-235-67
World Cup Record: 28-25-7
58% win/push rate in WC and All-Time
Let’s do this…
July 10, 2:00 pm EST
France v. Belgium, FOX
Group Stage – W 2-1 v. AUS, W 1-0 v. PER, D 0-0 v. DEN
R16 – W 4-3 v. ARG
QF – W 2-0 v. URU
Key Players –
Kylian Mbappe. The 19-year-old has been the young star many of us expected to come out of this tournament, especially if France made a run. He’s provided 3 goals and 1 assist (I’ll count the penalty draw as an assist cause it was so beautiful) and he has provided the biggest threat on the wing for the French. He’s faster and more powerful than any other outside back in the tournament, his feet are quick on the ball, his vision is spectacular and most of all his explosiveness can turn any game on its head in a single second. He’s budding into a superstar and he deserves all of the hype.
Ngolo Kante. The best defensive midfielder left in the tournament, and probably even the best in the world to begin with, has been an absolute rock for France. At 5 foot 6 and 150 pounds, he doesn’t fit the mold for a defensive midfielder but looks can be very deceiving. The former Premier League Player of the Year has played every single minute with an 89% pass accuracy, 17 interceptions and a 75% tackle rate. Not to mention he is often given a lot of space since he isn’t a threat moving forward, allowing him to switch play or change the pace of the game to how he feels would benefit France.
Antoine Griezmann. Obviously the team’s offensive leader is and has been a key player for this France team. He has provided 3 goals and 1 assist in a role he has not been used to playing; underneath the striker. When France go forward and use Giroud as a target man to hold up play, Griezmann becomes one of the most dangerous players on the field. He’s great with the ball at his feet but has also provided creativity in his quick passes outside of the box, providing a lethal give-and-go style to the attackers around him.
Keys for France –
This one may seem a bit obvious, but you can’t let Belgium counter attack like Brazil and Japan did. They can go from one side of the field to the other in 10 seconds with help from their speedy wingers, De Bruyne up the middle and the beast of Lukaku up top. When they go forward, Kante will need to hold the shape underneath and communicate with the center backs to make sure they are not vulnerable going the other way. Belgium scored their winner against Japan and their winner against Brazil off of counter attacks generated from a corner or a goalie outlet pass. Kante will also play a major role in limiting the creativity of Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium’s star midfielder. They will be matched up in the middle of the field and it will be an utter battle to see who can best each other.
Offensively, they need to feed Mbappe and allow Griezmann to work with the wingers, stretching out the Belgium defense. When France are most successful, it’s when they move the ball quickly and fluidly up the field. They are a team that can score in a multitude of ways (in the air, inside/outside of the box, whipping balls from the wings…) and they will need to move the ball fluidly, putting Belgium on their heels and constantly switching.
Group Stage – W 3-0 v. CRC, W 5-2 v. TUN, W 1-0 v. ENG
R16 – W 3-2 v. JAP
QF – W 2-1 v. BRA
Key Players –
Eden Hazard. The captain has made a massive impact for the Belgians in this tournament, scoring 2 goals and adding 2 assists. His role has been more of a provider than a goalscoring threat so far, but he has fit into the role perfectly. He had the best match rating against Brazil without scoring or assisting and it’s been a monicker of the impact he has had on the team. In his 90 minutes against Brazil he completed 77% of his passes, added 2 shots, won 20 out of his 26 duels, succeeded on 100% of his 9 total dribbles and won all 4 of the headers he faced. Containing him will be a job of its own and Pavard has to be up to the task on Tuesday.
Romelu Lukaku. After scoring 4 goals in the group stage, Lukaku hasn’t added to his tally in the knockout round but has been arguably the most important part of their attack. Sitting in at 6 foot 3 and 210 pounds, Lukaku can run through and past any defender he chooses and has used that to his advantage in this World Cup. His run that pulled defenders all over the place and his dummy against Japan on that same play allowed for the game winning goal to be scored. He has been the fulcrum in the counter attack, providing the role of both the target/hold up man as well as the unstoppable driving force going forward leading those attacks.
Kevin De Bruyne. Manchester City’s star midfielder can do absolutely everything in the midfield. He leads the tournament in big chances created, has the most key passes per match out of any players left and has provided both a goal and an assist so far in this World Cup. He was the player who brought the ball 50 yards down the field on the game winning goal against Japan and scored what turned out to be the winner against Brazil from 20 yards out. It will come down to Kante, and only Kante, to try to stop this unstoppable force in the midfield.
Keys for Belgium –
Try to limit the creativity and fluidity of the French offense. If you looked at their matches against Argentina and Uruguay, the play was wide open and it let France move the ball freely and it opened up space. If you can close them down in the right ways and not let them move the ball and gain momentum up the field, you have the chance to really limit their productivity.
Offensively, make sure you utilize the wings going forward. It will be tough to beat France up the middle with Kante being the General, so try to spread this defense out utilizing Hazard and Mertens out wide. Hell, just feed Hazard and let him work the wings and bring attention away from Lukaku and even possibly De Bruyne in the middle. And of course, use that counter attack the whole match. You may not control most of the possession if you’re Belgium so when you get it on the break, let the whole squad fly up the field and catch France when they’re sleeping.
This Belgium team must be taken seriously from France after they beat the odds-on favorite to win the tournament in Brazil. But Belgium have showed their vulnerabilities against both teams as they went down 2-0 to Japan and began to give in to the Brazilians toward the end once their legs got heavy. If France can open the game up to provide their playmakers space to move the ball freely among their front four, I expect them to take this one. But if Belgium can push the ball and put France on their heels, it can expose a defense that has only once faced one fierce attacking lineup when they let up 3 goals against Argentina. But France is the all around better side that seems to be playing the more confident, open and positive soccer that lasts in World Cups. Luckily it is a pickem so it will push if it is a draw after 90 minutes, providing value on France who I think should be the favorite here. France (Pick -125).
Holy moly, enjoy these Semifinals as they will be the single biggest sporting event you will ever see until the Final on Sunday. Expect another thorough preview for the next Semifinal to come out on Tuesday night.
Stay Kickin’ It. Peace.