It wasn’t shocking to see Europe dominate the World Cup again, placing four teams in the semifinals. After all, that continent features the best professional leagues and the most intense competition.
But who expected a final four of Belgium versus France and England versus Croatia? France ranked among the pre-tournament favorites, the other three surviving sides did not.
Defending World Cup champion Germany, Portugal and Spain were among the more highly regarded teams before the start of group play. But one by one they fell by the wayside.
While France and Belgium advanced through the difficult side of the bracket, England and Croatia benefited from upsets in group play. They gained an easier path toward the July 15 final, with England looking primed to get there.
But as Belgium midfielder Kevin de Bruyne reminded reporters in Russia, “When you reach the semi-finals of a World Cup you’re never going to find ordinary opposition.”
THE BELGIUM-FRANCE SHOWDOWN
France entered the World Cup as arguably the deepest and most talented squad. But it was something of a mystery after its underwhelming performances leading to the tournament. Experts wondered if manager Didier Deschamps could mold his youthful squad into a cohesive team.
It muddled through group play before finding its form against Argentina in the knockout round, led by explosive teenager Kylian Mbappe. That victory — and the team’s superior personnel — held the attention of oddmakers.
Belgium had been a disappointment in recent international competitions, but hit stride against Brazil with Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku performing brilliantly. That performance got France’s attention heading into Tuesday’s semifinal.
“Belgium are young, but they are maturing,” France defender Raphael Varane told reporters in Russia. “We know it will be a tough match . . . Romelu Lukaku’s physicality can trouble any defense. We can’t leave him any space because he’s a quality player.
“As for Eden, I’ve already played against him when he was at Lille. He has great qualities and is a good dribbler. We can’t give him any space either, so it is going to take a collective effort.”
As for Belgium, it must contain Mbappe just as it kept Neymar in check during its victory against Brazil. Getting Vincent Kompany back to full strength should firm up Belgium at the back end.
CROATIA PREPARES FOR WELL-COACHED ENGLAND
Croatia endured 120-minute marathons in its last two matches and lost defender Sime Vrsaljko to a knee injury. Center back Domagoj Vida could move to right back, with Verdan Corluka moving into the center of next to Dejan Lovren.
Another concern for Croatia was the hamstring soreness suffered by goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, who starred in shootout victories over Denmark and Russia.
And while the skillful Croatia side could control the ball for much of Wednesday’s semifinal, England is especially dangerous with its well-executed corner kicks and free kicks. That makes it a slight favorite to advance to final.
“They showed from the games I’ve seen so far that they play direct football and they are very fast,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic told reporters. “They are really good at set-pieces and their tall players are dangerous at corners. I think Raheem Sterling is an important player because he is really fast and his combination with Harry Kane is really dangerous.”
Still, Croatia enters this match with ample confidence despite England’s impressive run to the semis.
“They dealt with Sweden relatively easily so we know they are going to be a difficult opponent and we respect them,” Dalic said. “But we believe in our strengths too. We don’t fear England or anybody else.”
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