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Belgium’s Golden Generation to Overcome Gallic Flair

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July 10, 2018
Romelu Lukaku has four goals at the World Cup so far

While the bottom half of the draw has thrown up surprises aplenty, the top half has played out as many expected, with the exception of the Brazilians being toppled at the quarter-final stage. And it’s their conquerors, Belgium, who line up against the French in St Petersberg in the first semi-final of Russia 2018. Buoyed immensely by their win over the South Americans, the Belgians will respect France but will be far from intimidated by their Gallic opponents, against whom they recently have a very good record.

Coach Roberto Martinez will be reminding his Belgian players that in their last five meetings, France have won just once – a record that will not be lost on Didier Deschamp’s men either. The win over Brazil was regarded as a shock by many but for the soccer purists, this had been coming for some time. Belgium, with a squad regarded as man-for-man one of the best in the world, have for too long flattered to deceive and despite having players plying in their trade in the top leagues in Europe they have too often struggled to pull together as a unit.

The phrase ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ is often bandied around to describe teams with average individuals who come together as an efficient and cohesive unit and are able to punch above their weight, but for several years the opposite has been true of Belgium. Their wonderfully talented individuals have not regularly been able to function as a unit and successive managers have found it difficult to manage the egos in the dressing room and use them to their full potential.

Martinez – who is still to fully win over the Belgian press and some of their fans – has though, found a way. He has also found a formation that allows his creative players the freedom to express themselves without compromising the shape and defensive structure of the team.

By adopting a back-three using three of the best defenders in the English Premier League – Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen – Martinez has been able to provide a solid base; one that gives his team the ability to soak up pressure when it’s required and also the ability to launch devastating counter-attacks.

But, equally, they are effective with the ball and are more than equipped to have plenty of possession and be the ones to probe and ask the questions. Against Brazil, Martinez opted to play an attacking three – that unusually used Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku as a two-pronged attack who operated either side of a slightly deeper Kevin De Bruyne – and in the first half, during which Belgium opened up a two-goal lead, they simply had too much for the Brazilians. It was scintillating stuff and with Lukaku’s pace and power simply too much for the Brazil defence, it was a half-time lead that was more than deserved.

As expected, the second-half was a very different story and with Brazil pushing and pushing, the Belgium defence was forced to defend desperately and rely at times on the brilliance of Thibaut Courtois. As it transpired, the Brazilians pulled one goal back but were unable to get a second, and the result of a fine rear-guard action by Martinez’s men was a semi-final date with the French.

It was a test of character and the Belgians came through with flying colours – character being something they’ve been accused of lacking in the recent past. It was also in evidence in their thrilling comeback against Japan in the last 16. And they’ll need it again when faced with the talented French. The swashbuckling Romelu Lukaku could be crucial and don’t put it past the big man opening the scoring on Tuesday night.

Griezmann and Mbappe the Dangermen For France

Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann

It was a test of character and the Belgians came through with flying colours – character being something they’ve been accused of lacking in the recent past. It was also in evidence in their thrilling comeback against Japan in the last 16. And they’ll need it again when faced with the talented French.

To date, France have progressed through the tournament without hitting any great heights, although the world did sit up and take notice when they beat an ordinary Argentina side 4-3 in the Round of 16. Player-for-player, France probably have the strongest squad in the tournament and this clash with Belgium is certainly a tie that would have graced the final; the Belgians arguably being the only squad that could claim to have the strength of the French.

With England playing Croatia in the other semi, many are seeing this tie as a ‘final’ in its own right and so it will be a titanic struggle in St Petersberg, as the French look to get to their first final since being crowned champions on home turf in 1998, and the Belgians to their first ever.

France will again be looking to the attacking thrust offered by Kylian Mbappe and Antione Griezemann and will be hoping they can have the same joy against the aforementioned Belgium back-three that they enjoyed against Argentina and Uruguay. While it was the win over Messi’s Argentina that caught the headlines, the 2-0 win over Uruguay was impressive in its own way because of its clinical efficiency, and it showed a steel that is not always associated with the French. It is this, coupled with the attacking flair that everyone knows about, that makes them favourites for the game.

They also have attacking options beyond the obvious threat of Mbappe and Griezemann, and in the form of Olivier Giroud they can easily switch to a more direct, attacking style if the state of the game dictates; Giroud being acutely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Belgian back three given their Premier League heritage. However, for all the quality midfield players on display, it may well boil down to how well the Belgium defence – Kompany and Vertonghen in particular – can handle the speed and movement of Mbappe and Griezemann. Both possess a sharpness of thought in addition to their pace and will offer a real test of the 30-somethings in Belgium’s back line.

Traditionally, semi-finals are cagey affairs with little being given away, especially early on, but with so many in-form, quality attacking players involved it’s almost inconceivable that there won’t be goals. In addition to the need for their defence to be at its best, Belgium will be hoping Hazard can continue his match-winning form. If, and only if, they can contain the pace of the French strikers and get Hazard into dangerous positions in the final third will they be able to hurt the French, but it’s do-able.

In a tournament where it feels as if almost anything is possible, a Belgium win would be no more surprising than their win over Brazil. They genuinely believe that this is their time and at this stage of the competition belief can take you a long way. A draw at half time followed by a Belgium win in the second half makes plenty of appeal from a betting angle. 

About the author

Alan Penny
Alan Penny


Alan hails from Northern Ireland and is an avid fan of all sports. He has been with us since 2017 and serves as SBO’s Editor-in-Chief. Alan passionately covers everything from the latest regulatory developments across the globe to tips on the latest football matches.