And now there are four. With favourites Brazil, hosts Russia, underdogs Sweden and dark horses Uruguay knocked out in the quarterfinals, their conquerors – Belgium, Croatia, England and France – will do battle against one another as the final week of the 2018 FIFA World Cup gets underway. For the first time since 2006, and the fifth time overall, four European teams have reached the semifinals – with representatives from South America, Asia and Africa eliminated beforehand. Tite’s Brazil will be most disappointed, given that they looked solid, and were fancied to win their first Jules Rimet trophy since 2002. But Roberto Martinez’s Belgium had other plans.
And so, here’s a closer look at the two semifinal matches:
BELGIUM (3) v/s FRANCE (7)
Tuesday, 11.30 PM, St. Petersburg
Head to head: Played 74, Belgium 30, France 24, Draw 20
This will be only the third time these two face off in a World Cup encounter.
In what has been billed the Final before the Final, the winner of this cracking semifinal is tipped to win the title match on Sunday. These two are undoubtedly the most exciting teams in the tournament, with ‘golden generations’ and young, fluid players driving the wheels of two world-class lineups. Both are unbeaten in Russia, with Belgium one of two teams (the other being Croatia) to have won all their 5 games so far. Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils and Didier Deschamps’ Les Bleus are two of the most functional teams in the World Cup right now – both are coming off victories against two of South America’s best teams. There is also a common link between these two teams: 1998 World Cup winner and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry is now Belgium’s assistant coach, and is said to have had a considerable influence on the playing style of the current team.
As they proved against Uruguay with a professional 2-0 win, they are more than just Kylian Mbappe. Paul Pogba and especially Antoine Griezmann have now taken charge, with the team waking up after an unimpressive group stage performance. Incidentally, France played their first ever international football match against Belgium way back in 1904, which they drew 3-3. They have only lost 1 out of their last 17 matches, and will be quietly confident – by virtue of more experience in the latter stages of this tournament. More importantly, France has reached 3 World Cup Finals in the last 6 editions, and will be looking to win their first since upsetting Brazil back in 1998. They reached the Euro Championship Final in 2016, too, and have been building towards a grand run like this one.
The impressive Belgians are unbeaten in 24 matches now. They have defeated England and Brazil on their way to the last 4. They have staged the most remarkable comeback of the year against Japan, after being 2-0 down in the second half. Martinez’s men will still be hurting from quarterfinal defeats in Euro 2016 and the World Cup in 2014. They are better than their tournament record, and this is only the second time ever Belgium has reached the semifinal. They are yet to win a World Cup. With history against them, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bryune, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany are primed to create their own history. Everyone expects a high-scoring match, with the French defense currently in better form than their European neighbours’.
Prediction: 2-0 to Belgium
ENGLAND (14) v/s CROATIA (20)
Wednesday, 11.30 PM, Moscow
Head to Head: Played 7, England 4, Croatia 2, Draw 1
Croatia is the team that ensured England would not qualify for the Euro 2008 Championships, by defeating them at Wembley.
Nobody expected these two teams to be contesting a semifinal in Russia. Yet, Gareth Southgate and Zlatko Dalic’s men have come through their draws in exciting fashion to defy the odds. Their captains, Harry Kane and Luka Modric, have also been their best players. England however is the only team left in the competition to have been beaten once in the tournament; Belgium defeated them in the Group Stages. They have made the most of a favourable draw, while Croatia are yet to lose or draw a game. Between them, they have won 3 penalty shootouts.
So far, so easy. This is the first time since 1990 that England has managed to reach the World Cup semifinals. They have been humiliated in penalty shootouts repeatedly since then, but managed to pull one back against Columbia in their tense Round of 16 encounter. They were solid against Sweden, and now face their biggest test against Croatia. With chants of “It’s Coming Home” filling the air since their advance from the group stages, England has been gathering steam, with their fans dreaming of their second World Cup title, and their first in 52 years. Their goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has been at the forefront of their charge, managing to maintain his first clean sheet of the tournament against Sweden. Kane is the top scorer of the World Cup with 6 goals so far.
After winning all their 3 Group Stage games, including one against Argentina, Croatia has scraped through in penalty shootouts against Denmark and Russia in the knockouts. Unlike England, Luka Modric and the midfield magicians have looked a little more tired and vulnerable with every game. They are yet to win a knockout match in 90 minutes. Against Russia, everyone, including goalie Danijel Subacic who pulled a hamstring before the shootout, were operating beyond capacity. They were physically a broken team, but will hope to recover by Wednesday night, where they will face a relatively young and fresh team. This is only their second ever semifinal in World Cup history, and as the lowest ranked team left in the tournament, theirs is a fairytale story waiting to come of age.
Prediction: England on penalties
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