Having both secured their seats at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ table until next weekend's fight for medals, France and Belgium now have to see who will be pursuing gold and who is left searching for bronze. A potentially career-crowning Final is as little as an hour and a half of football away.
The pair arrived with high hopes but outsiders had their doubts about whether the two extravagant jigsaws comprised of stupendous talent could be pieced together in time for a true assault on the Final. While defensive doubts have arisen – against Argentina and Japan respectively – both have stood firm, with Belgium now enjoying their best major tournament since Mexico 1986.
The Red Devils will be without a key – if less flashy – part of their puzzle against France, with Thomas Meunier picking up a second booking prior to them being wiped for the semi-finals. Les Bleus will however be buoyed by the return of Blaise Matuidi, after sitting out a suspension of his own.
Roberto Martinez has urged Belgium to "play without fear" in their World Cup semi-final against France, and given his bold approach in the stunning win against Brazil, it is clearly a mantra he believes in.
With Kevin de Bruyne deployed in a false nine role, Romelu Lukaku found space on the right flank, reprising a ploy Martinez had occasionally used at Everton.
Top scorer Lukaku has not been on target in either of Belgium's two knockout wins but has earned plaudits for his all-round game, and assisted the second goal against Brazil. The striker seems to be relishing working with Martinez's assistant, France's record scorer Thierry Henry.
Henry's presence in the Belgium camp adds additional intrigue to this game. France's last World Cup semi-final, against Portugal in 2006, was decided by a penalty won by Henry and converted by Zinedine Zidane.
France coach Didier Deschamps, a former team-mate of Henry, says it will be "bizarre" to see him on the opposition bench, but adds "he is someone I really appreciate".
A penalty shootout is used when teams remain tied after 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes (two 15-minute halves) of overtime. There is no sudden-death in soccer. The entire 30 minutes of extra time is played regardless. If there is no winner after 120 minutes, then each team gets five penalty kicks.
Mandžukić, in fairness, is the kind of forward who is easy to miss. The game naturally celebrates players who like the ball at their feet, who set rhythms, weave passes, and waltz past opponents. But there are other footballers, who are masters of space—with what is not there—and who are more than equally effective. Mandžukić is one of those. You don’t tend to hear his name much in commentary, until it’s “Mandžukić!” And he’s there, six yards out, hammering the ball toward the goal, normally with a single touch. In April, I watched Mandžukić snaffle two first-half goals, both instinctive headers, in a 3–1 victory for Juventus over Real Madrid in the Champions League. He was the man of the match, and you weren’t even sure he was there.
Many years later, I sat on our sofa in Zagreb with my son, now the same age as I was back in 1990, to watch Croatia play Argentina in our second match in the World Cup in Russia. Twenty-eight years have passed since the summer that’s stuck in my mind, ever after, as the end of my innocence and my country’s. But suddenly, I was taking part in a remake of that long-gone experience, made up of familiar actors: Maradona was there, in the VIP section of the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, an eleven-year-old boy was sitting next to me, and I was watching the screen in disbelief: “How on earth is Croatia going to pull this off?”
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