Didier Deschamp’s French side will face a stern test from Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ when the two sides clash in the first semifinal of the FIFA World Cup on Tuesday.
European domination of world football has been complete. For long, the continent has drawn the best talent – players and managers – from every corner of the globe in a neo-age imperialist mission. This has been a conquest of a different kind, where riches – read talented youngsters – have been plundered, stacking European clubs with elite players and sporting philosophies from around the world.
In turn, theories originating from Europe have permeated other corners of the world, with players, too, getting imbibed in the European system where they spend a majority of their sporting career. The visible gap between the region and the rest of the globe has become especially evident in Russia 2018, with six teams qualifying for the quarters. The semifinals, now, will be an all-European affair.
France, the 1998 world champion, will play its 74th game against Belgium, which has transfixed this World Cup with an attacking dazzle that has even blown away Brazil, the five-time victor. Roberto Martinez surprised the opposition with his switch in tactics with the Belgium whirlwind – with Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku upfront – tearing the famed Brazilians apart in the first half. The manger, however, will miss the services of the suspended right back Thomas Meunier, perhaps forcing the team to move back to a less adventurous 4-3-3 formation with Nacer Chadli operating on the right flank.
The team’s attacking threat will nevertheless be a cause of concern, and France manager Didier Deschamps, who relies more on pragmatism, realises that. Hazard and De Bruyne, who constantly interchanged positions in the Brazilian masterclass, will continue to have free roles in the final third while Lukaku will look to widen the defensive line and open up space for his attacking cohorts.
“The absence of Meunier means he will be replaced. Belgium has arrived here not by chance but because it had a specific game plan in its last game. Against Brazil, Martinez intensified the midfield to block the central axis and so the opponent couldn’t go on those corridors and he kept Hazard and Lukaku away from the centre,” Deschamps said.
“With us, Belgium will do something similar. When the team gets the ball it attacks fast and with purpose. I have made sure our players are prepared for any formation at the beginning and during the match,” he added.
France, which has hardly deviated from its original blueprint, will again opt for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Blaise Matuidi returning on the left side of the midfield three after serving a one-match ban.
N’Golo Kante, the tireless runner, has already covered 51.56 kms (ninth highest) and completed 276 passes, and will need to be at his enforcing best while also committing to France’s offensive play. The Chelsea midfielder will be tasked with providing extra cushion to the defence, nullifying the threat of Hazard, and also dictate the attacking course of the team with his passes from the deep.
“Kante will have a role with some adjustments. His positioning and the balls he gets back are important for us and he also adds a lot to our attack with his trajectory on offensive passing. Against [Lionel] Messi he had a precise role and we didn’t see much of Messi [against France],” Deschamps said, emphasising the great faith he has in the former Leicester City midfielder.
While Olivier Giroud has spent 380 World Cup minutes without a goal, the striker’s ability to hold the ball suits France fine with Kylian Mbappe making the runs down the right – that caused problems aplenty for Argentina – while Antoine Griezmann revels in the space made available by Giroud’s unselfish work.
“We will need to anticipate Mbappe and be well-positioned," Belgium boss Martinez said. "We need to defend spaces more than the player himself. But we are not going to forget the others since France has a very complete attacking pattern,” he added.
The game promises to be a cloak-and-dagger affair with both mangers – with very different football philosophies – setting up their board to get a decisive advantage over the other. A victory in any battle though depends as much on the skill and luck of the foot soldiers as the stratagem of its generals.
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