France head into their World Cup semi-final clash with Belgium looking to reach their third final in six attempts, and do so on the back of victories over Argentina and Uruguay.
Belgium have reached the last four for just the second time in their history but and the Red Devils currently boast a 100% record during their time in Russia.
When France needed a controversial penalty and the most fortuitous of own goals to get the better of Australia in their opening game, few would have predicted that Didier Deschamp’s team were capable of reaching the last four of this competition.
However, while France failed to provide excitement or optimism for the rest of the tournament during the group stages, Les Bleus have delivered in the knockout stages with Argentina and Uruguay both being sent packing back to South America.
Argentina were only defeated by the odd goal in seven and the triumph over Uruguay was nothing more than professional, but both games showed that France have more than one string to their bow and it is difficult to bet against this side winning the Jules Rimet Trophy for a second time.
Like his team,Kylian Mbappe has performed better as the competition has progressed and the attacker’s showing against Argentina marked his arrival on the world stage, with Antoine Griezmann effectively being left to play the support role as the Paris Saint-Germain player takes centre stage.
There is an argument that doubts should remain about a defence who conceded three times against Argentina but in France’s other four matches, a goal has not been conceded from open play.
In the grand scheme of things, France need to take that confidence into a game against a team such as Belgium because while Argentina and Uruguay possessed the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez , they are yet to face a team who are performing collectively in the final third.
That said, while France will be wary, they will not be scared. This is a team who have suffered just one defeat in 17 outings, a run which has included fixtures against England, Netherlands, Wales, Germany, Italy and their two most recent opponents.
These two teams have the potential to become the top two nations in world football but right now, France have more experience and are producing the more polished performances and that could prove decisive in St Petersburg.
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Belgium have established themselves as one of the most feared teams on the international stage over the past few years but only with their 2-1 victory over Brazil did they really make people stand up and take notice.
That is perhaps an harsh assessment of a team who are currently 24 matches without defeat but their showings in tournament football will define their success and last-eight defeats to Argentina and Wales at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 have been lingering.
However, edging out the five-time winners and the favourites for this tournament represents the breakthrough of the Red Devils. Their world ranking of three has been justified and they are two wins away from the nation’s biggest-ever sporting achievement.
The first-half showing against Brazil could not be regarded as ruthless because more than two goals could have been scored, but their attacking prowess struck fear into a team who had previously only conceded six goals in 25 games and it made a statement to the rest of the nations in this tournament.
Kevin De Bruyn and Eden Hazard were mesmeric at times but Romelu Lukaku also showed that he is more than just a goalscorer and with the shackles off going forward, the striker’s display against Brazil could be the making of him.
That said, there remains a vulnerability at the back which will remain until Belgium produce a clean sheet in a high-profile match. Japan could have scored more than their two goals in the last 16 and Brazil will not quite know how they failed to score more than Renato Augusto’s late effort on Friday.
Roberto Martinez finds himself in a position where he cannot act against the weaknesses at the back due to the fear of taking something away from their play in the final third, but it is that fine line and a slight lack of balance which make Belgium so exciting to watch.
So far, that has worked in their favour and this team is riding a crest of a wave, but Belgium are not the finished article. It remains to be seen whether that should be regarded as a positive or negative heading into their biggest match in 32 years.
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