After Belgium stun Brazil, a tasty European affair awaits in World Cup semis

The first semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup will pit two teams packed with young talent but awaiting a defining tournament success. Will Belgium or France triumph in this derby of neighbouring European nations?

Griezmann Lukaku

From left - France striker Antoine Griezmann and Belgium marksman Romelu Lukaku Source: Getty Images

At about 8pm local time on Friday evening at the Kazan Arena media centre, a murmur rippled around the cavernous workspace. 

Ahead of Belgium’s most important game in years, Roberto Martínez had opted for plan B. 

After the addition of Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli saved the Red Devils against Japan in the Round of 16, Martínez was not even going to wait for the second half to include the midfield duo. 

It was a bold move, against the highest ranked team remaining in the competition. 

But fortune favours the brave. 

It took just 13 minutes for Brazil to go behind, the first time the Seleção have trailed in over a year. 

The pain was compounded less than 20 minutes later. 

Romelu Lukaku looked like a man possessed, charging around the football pitch to devastating effect. 

The Manchester United forward spear-headed a potent Belgian counter-attack that threatened relentlessly. 

Fellaini was composed in the midfield alongside similarly-coiffed Axel Witsel. Thibaut Courtois pulled off a string of remarkable saves, Kevin De Bruyne wreaked havoc out wide and Eden Hazard was a consistent creative spark. 

Fallaini witsel

For a Brazilian team that had, until Friday, looked the best in the competition, the absence of midfielder Casemiro – suspended for one match for an accumulation of yellow cards – was painfully felt. 

As one Twitter account noted, “no Casemiro, no party.” 

It took three substitutions early in the second half – Diego Costa, Renato Augusto and Roberto Firmino – to resuscitate Brazil. 

But while an Augusto goal in the 76th minute temporarily enlivened proceedings, Belgium managed to close out the game despite a few nervy moments. 

Their victory sets up an enticing semi-final encounter against France on Tuesday night (4am Wednesday AEST). 

With a 620-kilometre border and a shared language, Belgium and France are no strangers. 

Indeed, in 1795 the French invaded their northern neighbour, integrated Belgium for two decades until the fall of Napoleon. 

While political relations today are largely positive, the language divide in Belgium – the southern half speak French, while Flemish (a strain of Dutch) is predominant in the north – and associated political complexity complicates matters. 

If Belgium’s win on Tuesday saw the team go up a gear or three, France’s victory over Uruguay earlier in the evening seemingly represented a down-shift from the thrill of Les Bleus’ Round of 16 clash with Argentina. 

Like Belgium, the French team is awash with talent. 

Kylian Mbappé is a leading contender for player of the tournament. Paul Pogba is one of the best midfielders in the world. Antoine Griezmann is the team’s beating heart. 

Uruguay v France: Quarter Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Like Belgium (until Tuesday at least for the Red Devils), Didier Deschamps’ France has failed to truly fire in Russia. 

The French may have gone through the Group C undefeated, subsequently beating Argentina and now Uruguay, but their performances have been controlled and compact. 

Aside from a few flashes against Lionel Messi’s La Albiceleste, France have lacked the verve and panache that a team including Mbappé, Pogba, Griezmann et al could – perhaps should – display. 

The French team almost appear on autopilot. This was most visible against Uruguay – while the South Americans played with raw emotion, France seemed to be a collection of automatons. 

The usually-reliable Samuel Umtiti was shaky and Olivier Giroud unable to impose himself on the match. Mbappé was unable to replicate his dynamism of earlier encounters. 

His failure to provide beautiful football might not cause Deschamps’ any sleepless nights as he prepares for the semi-final. 

But the Belgians performance against Brazil will. 

Martínez is a much-maligned coach. Yet after an uninspiring group stage, Belgium’s near-death experience against Japan has jolted his team into life. 

While France’s 2-0 win over Uruguay is not something to scoff at, the respective showings on Friday suggest the advantage lies with Belgium. 

Deschamps can take some hope from his forthcoming opponent’s frailties during the final 15 minutes against Brazil. 

But if the Belgium of the first-half return on Tuesday, France will face their toughest challenge yet. 

The opening semi-final brings together two of the best teams in Europe. 

Both nations possess an embarrassment of youthful talent, yet neither has so far fulfilled the potential of their current generations on the international stage. 

Only one will keep the flame alive in Saint Petersburg.

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4 min read
Published 7 July 2018 at 9:18am
By Kieran Pender in Kazan