The first semi final of the World Cup at Saint Petersburg between Belgium and France promises to be a classic.
Both teams have overcome formidable obstacles with Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Japan being the scalps these teams have claimed on the way to the semi final.
With stars adorning both teams, and managers who have asserted themselves tactically, both Belgium and France will back themselves to reach the final.
Belgium started as underdogs against a defensively organised and offensively clinical Brazil.
To stand a chance, Belgium needed to optimise their attacking threats, while simultaneously ensuring that they don’t grant space to Brazil’s quartet of attackers.
Roberto Martinez devised a perfect plan to achieve these goals. Changing the formation from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-3-3, Martinez crowded the midfield with the introduction of Fellaini.
Not only did this change help in pressurising the duo of Fernandinho and Paulinho, but it also gave playmaker Kevin De Bruyne the platform to take risks and put himself in advanced positions.
With Yannick Carrasco being a possible defensive liability, Martinez shifted the left footed centre-back, Jan Vertonghen, as the left back.
This change worked wonderfully with Vertonghen nullifying the threat of Willian using a high line and strong tackles.
The final change Martinez made was to play Nacer Chadli in place of Dries Mertens as a traditional wide player.
Chadli’s work rate and defensive discipline was another important facet in Belgium’s victory.
A significant feature of Belgium’s tactics in the quarter finals was the wide role Hazard played.
Instead of occupying an inside left channel, Hazard stuck to the touchline, aiding defensively by constantly tracking back.
Against an on-fire Kylian Mbappe, Hazard might be required to put another defensive shift in.
Belgium is likely to retain the same tactical formation against France, considering the latter’s midfield prowess and threat from wide regions.
But a simple duplication of style might not to do against a formidable French team without injury or suspension issues.
An overly defensive approach against France may not bear fruition, as Uruguay’s performance in the quarters showed and therefore, Belgium will have to look for kinks in an otherwise solid armour.
One change they can consider making is the reinstatement of Mertens for Chadli.
The former might lack the pace or the defensive ethic of Chadli, but he more than makes up for it with his link up play, crossing ability and instinctive nature in the box.
Mertens might be the risk Belgium needs to take in order to reach their first ever World Cup final.
The doubts regarding the extent of French progress in the World Cup was never about the personnel.
After all, France perhaps has the best pool of youth and experience; stardom and potential amongst all squads entering the World Cup.
The misgivings with regard to France was on the tactical balance and choice of players Didier Deschamps would start with.
At the helm for nearly six years, a fundamental flaw of the French under his reign has been the inability to score goals in crucial knockout games.
It seems as though those flaws have been ironed out going by the 4-3 and 2-0 victories France inflicted over Argentina and Uruguay.
Paul Pogba who looked shackled previously, has started to dominate games, while N’Golo Kante has been at his destructive best, snuffing out potential attacks by the dozen.
The promise of Kylian Mbappe has delivered with three goals while replacement fullbacks, Theo Hernandez and Benjamin Parvard have cemented their place in the starting XI.
Getting Griezmann on the scoresheet is another positive France will take into the clash between European neighbours.
With the starting XI more or less picking itself, the only dilemma in Deschamps’ mind would be the left midfield position.
Corentin Tolisso would be the more possession based and creative option while Blaise Matuidi is a more direct and defensive player.
Knowing Deschamps, he will in all likelihood fall back on the tried and tested Matuidi considering his safety first approach.
France will hope that their slight edge in terms of quality coupled with a defensively solid display will help them cross the line.
Player to Watch Belgium
Jan Vertonghen: In an era of marauding wingbacks, Vertonghen is a throwback to the era of a flat back 4. Naturally left footed, but lacking pace, he looks to press high but avoids making overlapping runs, and this defensive discipline will come in handy against the right hand partnership of Mbappe and Parvard. A dominant display from him can force the reluctant Deschamps into making tactical changes which could play into Belgium’s hands.
Olivier Giroud: Giroud has not scored a single goal for France in this World Cup campaign, but his role is not restricted to solely scoring goals. With an imposing physique and ability to hold the ball, as well as lay it off for midfield runners to shoot from distance, Giroud is as much of a facilitator as a scorer in the French set up. With Fellaini playing on the opposite end, Giroud will be tasked to win long diagonals as well as be the first line of defence in set plays. A trademark Giroud performance could be the fine line between victory and defeat.
Predicted Lineups Belgium: 1-4-3-3
Courtois- Meunier, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen- Witsel, Fellaini, De Bruyne- Mertens, Lukaku, Hazard.
France: 1-4-2-3-1Lloris- Parvard, Varane, Umtiti, Theo Hernandez- Kante, Pogba- Mbappe, Griezmann, Matuidi- Giroud.