ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - A compelling cast of players, two attacking teams propelled by great pace and a clash between neighbors to boot.
There seems very little to stop Belgium and France producing a World Cup classic in Tuesday’s semi-final.
Both teams boast a rich assembly of match-winning players – Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard for Belgium and Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe for the French – but have also shown a strength of character that adds to their tournament-winning credentials.
Belgium’s come-from-behind win in the last 25 minutes of their second round tie against Japan would have made Roy of the Rovers envious while France produced a venomous sting in their tale to sweep past Argentina, after also finding themselves trailing in the second half.
Both have built off a slow start at the tournament in Russia, seemingly set to peak just at the right time.
The predominant weapon for both teams is their speed going forward, catapulting players with instinctive talent into positions from where their genius can prove lethal.
Both sides will be cautious about being sucked forward and leaving space behind their defense for the opposition to launch quick counters, until someone takes the lead.
Instead the contest is likely to be about passing and probing and waiting for some magic to pries open the defense.
The midfield battle promises intrigue too, none more so than Paul Pogba muscling it out with Manchester United team mate Marouane Fellaini.
Belgium reinforced for the quarter-final win against Brazil and France will have Blaise Matudi back from suspension for Tuesday’s game at the Saint Petersburg Stadium. It means Corentin Tolisso will lose his place in what is likely the only change from the France team that beat Uruguay 2-0 in the quarter-final on Friday.
Against Japan, Belgium were harried and corralled by their opponent’s pressing and made clever changes for the next game against Brazil, where Fellaini and Nacer Chadli came in. Chadli played higher up the middle with Romelu Lukaku switched to the right and De Bruyne employed as a decoy center forward, the so-called ‘false nine’.
There will be further adjustments from coach Roberto Martinez following the suspension of Thomas Meunier, who would have been entrusted to keep Mbappe quite. Martinez will either bring back Yannick Carrasco or shift Jan Vertongen across.
Standing in the way of the rich selection of potential match winning performers on either side are two outstanding goalkeepers.
Hugo Lloris made arguably the save of the tournament to keep intact France’s half-time lead over Uruguay on Friday and Thibault Courtois’ tip-over save from Neymar near the end of Belgium’s 2-1 triumph over Brazil later the same day drew a ‘Hand of God’ headline in the Belgian press the next morning.
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty