France faces Belgium in a mouthwatering World Cup semi-final clash in St Petersburg, today. There was less at stake the last time the teams last went head-to-head 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 two countries.
With the second-youngest roster at the World Cup, France has shown no fear and advanced to its first World Cup semifinal since 2006 led by 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe.
In Belgium, there were doubts about Roberto Martinez's ability to transfer the country's individual talent into a collective force. Fans welcomed his arrival in 2016 with lukewarm enthusiasm because he'd only recently been fired by Everton in the Premier League. With former France striker Thierry Henry as an assistant coach, Belgium leads the scoring in Russia with 14 goals in its five World Cup matches.
Martinez's tactics have stood out, too. With Belgium trailing Japan 2-0 in the round of 16, Martinez replaced two wide players with two midfielders and they both scored. 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 appeared to be at his commanding best in the quarterfinal win over 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 Marouane Fellaini. But it must cope without defender Thomas Meunier, whose 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. In Meunier's absence, Martinez may scrap his 3-5-2 formation with wingbacks, and instead switch to a back four in a more compact defense.
Star forward Eden Hazard is known for his attacking prowess, but he also is an outlet for Belgium's defense. 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. He needs one goal to move ahead of France great Zinedine Zidane. They are tied on fourth overall with 31.
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 in scoring en route to the Euro 2016 final, when Les Bleus lost to Portugal. Belgium struggled against Japan when defending quick and mobile players. Andres Cunha of Uruguay was assigned to referee the match after working France's opening 2-1 win over Australia and Spain's 1-0 victory over Iran in the group stage. ST.