ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) – Considering the attacking might of both sides, a goal-fest looks possible when France and Belgium meet Tuesday night in the World Cup semifinals.
There was less at stake the last time the European neighbors and rivals faced each other at the World Cup, a 4-2 victory for France in the third-place match in 1986. That was the last competitive match between the teams. When they played in an exhibition three years ago at Stade de France, Belgium dominated, taking a three-goal lead five minutes into the second half of a 4-3 victory.
France’s players were jeered at their national stadium on the eve of the 2002 World Cup when the defending champions lost a friendly to Belgium 2-1.
But with the second-youngest roster at the World Cup, France has advanced to its first World Cup semifinal since 2006 led by 19-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe and a pair of inexperienced attacking fullbacks in Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez.
“We’re not scared of anyone,” Pavard said. “We’ve been confident from the start and we’re not asking any questions of ourselves.”
Coach Didier Deschamps, the captain of France’s titlists at the ’98 World Cup and 2000 European Championship, has instilled a steely mentality.
“He motivates the troops with strong words,” Pavard said. “We’re ready to go to war with him.”
Deschamps made bold decisions to start Pavard on the right and Lucas Hernandez on the left. The 22-year-olds have only 10 international appearances each but are both playing with good composure.
“To work under him is exceptional,” Pavard said. “He always gives me a little bit of advice, which helps me improve.”
There were doubts about Roberto Martinez’s ability to transfer Belgium’s individual talent into a collective force. Fans welcomed his arrival in August 2016 with lukewarm enthusiasm, since he’d only recently been sacked by fired by Everton on England’s Premier League.
His tenure began with a 2-0 home defeat to Spain, but since then Belgium is unbeaten in 24 and has scored 78 goals – being held scoreless in only one of those games. With former France striker Thierry Henry as an assistant coach, Belgium has top-scored in Russia, with 14 goals in its five World Cup matches.
“He’s given the team the desire to attack,” French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet said of Henry. “The forwards go to see him. He’s held in high esteem.”
Martinez’s tactics have stood out.
With Belgium trailing 2-0 to Japan in the round of 16, Martinez replaced two wide players with two midfielders more used to the middle of the field, and substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli both scored.
LLORIS VS. COURTOIS
Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and France No. 1 Hugo Lloris could be busy.
Lloris has been criticized during the past year after errors for France and Tottenham.
In France’s World Cup opener against Australia, he let a long shot go past him and watched in relief as it hit the crossbar. But Lloris looked his commanding best against in the quarterfinal win against Uruguay, rushing off his line to push away a low cross and later making a superb low save.
Belgium has height and heading ability in defenders Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen and Fellaini.
Courtois entered the tournament as one of the top goalkeepers in the world along with Spain’s David De Gea. But while De Gea had a poor tournament , Courtois enhanced reputation with an outstanding quarterfinal performance against Brazil.
French striker Olivier Giroud thinks Lloris has the edge over Courtois, Giroud’s teammate at Chelsea.
“They’re both very good on their line, but Hugo is more explosive,” Giroud said. “The best is Hugo. Sorry, Thibaut.”
Belgium must cope without defender Thomas Meunier, whose rampaging runs down the flank are a key part of Belgium’s attack.
Meunier is suspended after tripping Brazil star Neymar and earning a second yellow card of the tournament.
While star forward Eden Hazard is known for his attacking prowess, he also is an outlet for Belgium’s defense, who peels off to the right near the midfield stripe and waits to receive a pass.
Hazard runs at pace and cuts inside. Because of his quick feet, change of direction and exquisite close control, he is difficult to tackle and this often draws a foul.
While Giroud has yet to score at this World Cup, his ability to hold the ball up suits France’s system and allows Mbappe to make runs down the right flank. It also gives Antoine Griezmann space to roam.
“I try to create gaps for my teammates,” Giroud said. “It’s my unselfish side.”
Giroud needs one goal to move ahead of France great Zinedine Zidane. They are tied on fourth overall with 31. Henry leads with 51.
Griezmann has scored two penalty kicks and set up Raphael Varane’s headed goal against Uruguay. But he has not shown the form he did when he led France is scoring en route to the Euro 2016 final, when Les Bleus lost to Portugal.
Belgium struggled against Japan when defending quick and mobile players.
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