World Cup 2018 has entered its final week, and it has certainly saved the best for last. After a tantalising set of quarter-finals, both semi-finals look set to be enthralling contests between worthy challengers. In this tournament so far, uncertainty has been l’ordre du jour, with predictions often defied and favourites left shocked and embarrassed. There is only one guarantee in this competition; the remaining four teams will play two more games before they head home; the semi-final, and either the third-place playoff or the final. No prizes for guessing which one they would prefer…
France v Belgium, Tuesday July 10, 7pm
Belgium’s victory over Brazil on Friday seemed to many a sea change in world football. We all knew Belgium’s “Golden Generation” were good, but were they good enough to challenge the five-time world champions? The answer: a resounding yes.
Prior to the tournament, many marked Belgium as the dark horse of the tournament and subsequently began to wonder if Belgium could actually be considered a dark horse. This Belgium side contains some of the world’s best players; players who have proven themselves at the highest level of club competition in the English Premier League (EPL) for several years.
The country may not have a history of winning trophies but there are several individuals who do: Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard all have Premier League titles under their belt and Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, although trophy-less, have been instrumental to Tottenham’s resurgence as a title contender and have been similarly indispensable to the national side. The fact that they have advanced this far will surprise very few people who follow European club football. This is in contrast to the stars of the French team who have relatively little experience of winning trophies at the highest level.
Belgium’s ascendance marks a power shift at league level. Belgium’s manager, assistant manager, and the majority of their star players earned their stripes in the EPL. This is compared the spine of the Brazilian team who ply their trade in La Liga in Spain or Ligue 1 in France. The representation of players in the EPL in the semi-final will greatly outnumber that of any other of Europe’s “top five,” suggesting a real revival in the league which many had started to believe was falling behind La Liga and even the Bundesliga. The EPL’s decline in European competition had become so drastic that it was in danger of losing its fourth European position up until this year’s resurgence.
Roberto Martinez’s managerial role so far this tournament also cannot be underestimated; his two substitutions managed to score against Japan, saving Belgium from an early exit which would have irreparably dulled the lustre of the Golden Generation. His tournament experience is also invaluable, having pipped Manchester City to the FA Cup with a relegation-damned Wigan side. Toby Alderweireld has also been praising Thierry Henry’s role as assistant manager this week; saying that his experience of playing in the completion is invaluable. Deschamps will face his former team-mate in the opposing dugout on Tuesday and has described this prospect as “bizarre”. The pairing were never beaten in a single one of their 21 competitive appearances together.
The clash of these two diametrically opposed managers is sure to produce an explosive game. While Deschamps has the quality and talent in his squad to play free-flowing, expressive football, he has so far elected to prioritise the practical angle and has come under a certain amount of criticism for doing so. Deschamps has answered his critics by saying: “If you are looking for 5-0, don’t come to a World Cup, you won’t get this” – a glib and prosaic statement which it is hard not to agree with but on further consideration is totally meaningless.
If we have a somewhat unlikeable and controversial champion of stoic endurance in Deschamps, in Martinez we have the total opposite. The Spaniard has had a huge impact on the Belgians and has not lost a single competitive game since his shock appointment in 2016, having presided over a run of 19 wins and five draws. His free-scoring Belgium side has scored 14 goals so far this tournament, only one less than the 15 of 2002’s Brazilian champions.
Martinez is also not afraid to make bold decisions. He has often shot himself in the foot with his creativity in the past, but his re-positioning of Kevin De Bruyne from midfield into a forward role against Brazil was a masterstroke, as was his switch into a back four. Unfortunately for Martinez, Thomas Meunier’s suspension in Friday’s game means that he will have to once again rely on Yannick Carrasco on the left while switching Nacer Chadli to the right. Carrasco looked out of his depth while deputising as a wing back against a below-average Japanese side, and will now have to deal with the threat of wunderkind Kylian Mbappé on his flank. Martinez may be forced to switch to a three at the back, not an ideal situation against the glut of attacking talent that France possess. Expect Belgium to focus on outscoring the opposition to make up for their potential defensive frailties; it’s bound to be an entertaining one for the neutral.
Croatia v England, Wednesday July 11, 7pm
When assessing a team’s journey through the World Cup, crucial factors must combine successfully to guarantee the ultimate glory. Of course, the quality of players, the manager and their work ethic all play a significant role, but one must not underestimate the importance of luck. Both Croatia and England have benefitted massively from good fortune in the tournament; being placed on the easier side of the draw has seen them qualify for their first semi-final in quite some time. Arguably, however, Croatia have been the luckier of the two sides in the way they have disposed of their opposition. Therefore, it is possible that come Wednesday, their luck might just run out.
Despite having a squad which includes Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic, the Blazers have been somewhat underwhelming thus far. They conquered Nigeria in their opening game as expected, but an aging Argentinian side may have flattered the Croatians by gifting them with 3 goals, although, that Modric strike was undeniably majestic. However, since then, they have faced three highly defensive teams in Iceland, Denmark, and Russia. Each of these sides employed a defensive strategy designed to heavily fortify their danger zone. While these matches were not as thrilling as others at this World Cup, Croatia must be commended for their valiant efforts. The quarter-final against Russia was a showcase of their strong character. Somehow the Blazers managed to nullify the momentum carried by the Russians and despite shipping two goals, got two of their own back, which is more than can be said for Spain.
That said, breaking down these walls of defence has been incredibly demanding for the Blazers and will have a negative impact on their energy levels. It is also worth considering the damage suffered psychologically by the players, with both of their knockout games so far requiring a penalty shootout to select the winner. In short, Croatia are heading into this semi-final a little worse for wear, and the real issue will be whether they can grind their way through to their first ever final at a major competition.
Gareth Southgate will be aware of this, and this is somewhere in which his fresher England side can capitalise. It would be unfair to cite fortune as the cause of their success. Granted, they will be relieved that their squad remains at near-to-full strength, with Jamie Vardy the only player who remains doubtful after picking up a knock against Colombia. England demonstrated against Sweden that they are capable of breaking down disciplined defences and creating space, thereby setting up chances on goal. More impressive still was the diversity of their attacking options in the tournament. Leicester’s Harry Maguire is just one example of how the Three Lions have developed a team that can score from anywhere. All this stems from the healthy team dynamic which Southgate has emphasised. At the start of the tournament, many viewed Harry Kane as England’s saviour and predicted that he would have to pull the team through. Now, a well-rounded and inspired team are poised to play either France or Belgium in the decider on Sunday.
World Cup 2018 has, for the most part, looked to the slim margins to separate teams, even going so far as to choose the team with fewer yellow cards. On Wednesday evening, however, it is unlikely that officials will have to resort to these measures to pick a winner. An exhausted Croatia will do well to hold off the English crusaders, who look more and more threatening with each passing game. Of course, there is still room for improvement within the Three Lions’ squad; Raheem Sterling’s finishing still leaves a little to be desired, but all signs point to England’s first final since ‘66. Even coldhearted cynics are warming to the idea of footballing coming home. Crucially, the team have not been caught up in the hype. After all, they have a semi-final to win first.