OVERLOOKING the Gulf of Finland, the Krestovsky Stadium awaits a football classic on Tuesday evening. It’s a World Cup semi-final that has all the ingredients of becoming one of the most memorable clashes in history.
Two evenly-matched teams with a lot of star power, two teams with a lot of similarities in the make-up of their squads and both who know each other pretty well. France and Belgium share a 620km-long border and on Tuesday they will share the same pitch on which they will battle it out for the right to contest the final of world football’s showpiece tournament in Russia.
The only difference being is that France have history to live up to. Belgium, on the other hand, are trying to make history. The current French squad is inevitably compared to the class of 1998, which won their sole World Cup title in their own backyard.
The golden generation of Belgium is trying to win their maiden international title, to set a benchmark for its teams of the future to be compared to. Victory against France — a team against whom they have historically, and somewhat surprisingly, enjoyed an upper hand; of their 73 games Belgium have won 30 to France’s 24 — will only add to their growing legend.
“Geographically, we share a border,” France captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said at the pre-match news conference on Monday. “We know each other inside out because many of us [who will be on opposite sides] play for the same clubs. We need to rise to challenge and keep doing what we’ve been doing. They are an adversary with great quality and there will be difficult moments so we have be ready to suffer in order to reach the final.”
Lloris will have Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, the defensive duo who play in front of him for Tottenham Hotspur, on the opposite side. N’Golo Kante, the man who fuels Eden Hazard’s mesmeric performances for Chelsea, would need to defend against the Belgian star forward. Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, team-mates at Manchester United, would be coming face-to-face. Marouane Fellaini, who has oft-partnered Pogba in the United midfield, will now be looking to stop the powerful Frenchman.
There is then the midfield contest between Pogba and Kevin De Bruyne, who plays for United’s city rivals Manchester City. The last time the two were involved in a Manchester derby, Pogba inspired a scintillating United comeback for a 3-2 victory. There could also have been a fascinating duel on the wings between French teen sensation Kylian Mbappe and his PSG team-mate Thomas Meunier but that won’t happen since the Belgian is suspended for the game.
“There will be players who will have their club team-mates on the opposite side,” France coach Didier Deschamps said at the pre-match press conference on Monday. “However, during the match, there will be no friendship. Each player would be defending his colours.”
Deschamps and Belgium coach Roberto Martinez will have a tactical duel on the sidelines of the pitch. Deschamps — famously dubbed as the ‘water carrier’ for his style of play when he captained the France squad to victory in 1998; providing the legs for the more creative midfielders around him — and Martinez have very different approaches to the game.
Deschamps has the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality and it’s evident in his six years in-charge of France. There isn’t a philosophy to the French play, their style of play derived from the personnel they have. Mbappe has starred at the World Cup with his breakneck speed and Deschamps has merely used the youngster’s ability to the team’s advantage.
Martinez, on the other hand, is a coach who lays emphasis to beautiful, attacking football. He is more proactive than reactive. Yes, in the game against Japan, he had to throw on his more aerial players in a bid to secure that sensational comeback victory but he outdid Brazil with a tactical masterclass where his team attacked the five-time champions at will.
Deschamps also took a jibe at Martinez. “This current crop of Belgian players knows each other and they play at some of the top clubs,” he said. “I don’t want to offend him but he has benefitted from the work done by [former Belgium coach] Marc Wilmots. He changed things, put his own mark and has great potential and I congratulate him at being here.”
Otherwise, there was respect and admiration in equal measure.
“Belgium are in a forward gear,” said Deschamps. “When they have the ball, they can perform and have everything they need. They do it well, they do it fast.”
Lloris added: “Belgium are a very exhaustive team … one that can attack and defend. They are a fantastic team.”
There was more of the same during Belgium’s pre-match press conference. “France are very much similar to us in terms of individualities,” Martinez said on Monday. “They have great players, individual talents who can decide the game in one moment. We immensely respect the quality of France. Several players on both sides share dressing rooms at their clubs and tomorrow they will be playing against each other. It’s a unique moment for us to improve further. France is a big test for us.”
De Bruyne, speaking before Martinez, echoed similar thoughts. “There are two teams with very good players … players who can create beautiful football,” he said. “However, each player will do what it takes to win. I’m not thinking much about what will happen. It would be a rather close match but if there is an early goal, the match would become very different.”
An early goal will really enliven this contest. And with the quality on offer, it could be a goal-fest that many are predicting this game would be.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2018