Day 22: France edge past Belgium
France booked their place at the Luzniki Stadium for Sunday’s World Cup Final with a narrow win over a flat Belgium side in St Petersburg.
Belgium were brilliant in their quarter-final win over Brazil on Friday night and started on the front foot pushing France back but couldn’t create any clear-cut chances. Then after 20 minutes the French tactics started to pay off with Paul Pogba picking out a glorious long ball for Kylian M’bappe but Thibaut Courtois was alert to the danger and raced of his goal to collect. France grew in confidence and started to attack but that left gaps for Eden Hazard to exploit and Toby Alderwiereld produced s potent shot on the turn from a corner forcing Hugo Lloris into a diving save.
But France were getting M’bappe on the ball and his impudence and flare were causing Belgium’s back line problem and he finally opened them up when he brilliantly played in Benjamin Pavard who forced another good save from Courtois.
The second half started with France on the front foot and they finally broke the deadlock on 51 minutes with defender Samuel Umtiti powering home a corner. France were looking to kill the game and a back heel from M’bappe played Oliver Giroud in only for the misfiring striker to miscontrol under pressure and the chance was gone.
Belgium went forward but Romelu Lukaku was well marshalled by Raphael Varane. But De Bruyne still managed to create great chance when he swung in a deadly cross but Maruoane Fellaini headed wide. Hazard continued to push hard and looked the mostly likely source of a goal for Belgium but the French defence held strong whilst their forwards conspired to miss chances to put the game to bed.
But Belgium couldn’t find the cutting edge that put Brazil to the sword and France saw the game out to set up a second major final in as many years.
England vs Croatia Preview (Moscow)
The last time England walked out for a semi-final at a major tournament their current manager was in the team, the last time they played in a World Cup semi-final most of the current squad weren’t born.
Just by walking out to play a semi-final England’s players will be achieving something that eluded Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright, Kevin Keegan, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and many lesser knowns. As Alan Shearer stated last night the boys are already heroes, but could come home legends.
For Croatia it’s a first semi final since its own golden generation of Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki & Zvonimir Boban made the last 4 at France 1998, tonight their successors could go one step further.
England are having an excellent World Cup far exceeding pre tournament expectations with the country falling back in love with a national team so long a source of derision. England’s young side are playing without the fear and fatigue that dogged so many recent campaigns.
Croatia meanwhile are a capable side with a formidable midfield run by playmakers Luka Modric & Ivan Rakitic who spend most their time running the midfields of Real Madrid & Barcelona respectively. Mario Madzukic remains a dangerous forward whilst wingers Ante Rebic & Ivan Perisic have both had excellent tournaments. At the back Danijel Subasic has been a Croatian hero in 2 penalty shoot outs and Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren has held together the back 4.
Croatia have a clean bill of health injury wise but were out on their feet at the end of their quarter final with Russia- their second straight penalty shoot out. England should be fresher after coasting past Sweden in their quarter-final.
The key to the game is can England keep Modric & Rakitic quiet, when allowed space to play they ran riot against Argentina. Denmark nullified them by pressing them high up the pitch- England may well use Dele Alli & Jordan Henderson to do the same.
Croatia’s defence looked shaky against Russia with some dreadful defending leading to Mario Fernandes’ late leveller whilst Lovren who has had a good tournament but suffered a torrid time against Harry Kane in the Premier League last season.
England start as marginal favourites but Croatia are a dangerous side filled with experienced campaigners with Champions League medals in their collections. But it’s coming home!
Prediction: England 2-1 Croatia