France and Belgium meet in the first World Cup semi-final in St. Petersburg on Tuesday as two of the tournament’s most talented teams aim to fulfill the promise latent within their ranks.
The match is a meeting of Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ and a French team that is emerging as potential successors to the nation’s all-conquering vintage of 1998.
Belgium produced what was heralded as a coming of age performance against Brazil in the quarter-final, blowing the five-time winners away with a display of attacking verve that was mixed with grit and resilience in defence.
Romelu Lukaku battered the Brazilian backline with his pace and physicality, allowing playmakers Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne to find the time and space in a first-half in which the Red Devils bludgeoned Brazil into submission.
Thibaut Courtois was superb in goal, giving a performance in stature to match his giant 6ft 5in frame when Brazil finally came knocking after pulling a late goal back through Renato Augusto.
Manager Roberto Martinez has shown he is not afraid to mix grit with guile, and called up midfield giant Marouane Fellaini against Brazil in a move that was effective in providing a rough edge to the smoother talents of Hazard and De Bruyne.
In front of Courtois at the back, Belgium have the experience of lynchpin Vincent Kompany who, even when questions linger over his fitness, brings a calm and composure to those around him.
The Golden Generation label seemed to hang like a millstone around the team’s neck at previous tournaments, with quarter-final exits at the last World Cup and at Euro 2016. But under Martinez the team are finally threatening to make good on their moniker and turn the tag into something more tangible in the form of the 18 carat World Cup trophy.
However, the Belgians will meet a French team in St. Petersburg that has emerged as a gilded generation of its own.
After a slow start to the tournament and uninspiring progress from the group stage – despite two wins and a draw – Didier Deschamps’ team swept past Argentina in the last 16 thanks to a blistering attacking display from teenager Kylian Mbappe, who was involved in three of France’s four goals, scoring twice and winning a penalty.
France displayed different qualities in overcoming Uruguay in their quarter-final, winning 2-0 in an attritional contest which lacked the spark of the Argentina victory but was equally as impressive in its control and game management.
Deschamps had appeared cautious to allow players such as Mbappe free rein early on in Russia, but there is the growing feeling that he is now offering more attacking licence to a team so rich in talent going forward.
Target man Olivier Giroud is expected to start against Belgium and again provide a foil for Mbappe’s pace and Antoine Griezmann’s playmaking, while Paul Pogba - solid in midfield - will line up alongside the omnipresent N’Golo Kante.
At the back, Hugo Lloris was in inspired form against Uruguay, while Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane look increasingly assured as a center-back pairing.
France have been less porous than Belgium, conceding four goals in Russia to Belgium’s five – and have kept clean sheets in three of their five games.
However, their backline will face its biggest test yet against a Belgian team that are top scorers at Russia 2018 with 14 goals in their five games, with the strikes coming from nine different players – a record in diversity shared with the French team of 1982 and Italian side of 2006.
Both teams know they would be strong favorites to finish the job in Russia against either England or Croatia in the final, meaning it could be now or never for the pair to fulfil their undoubted promise.
HEAD TO HEAD
The teams have met a staggering 73 times in their 114-year rivalry, with Belgium ahead on 30 wins to France’s 24, and the teams playing out 19 draws.
Belgium beat France 4-3 the last time the teams met in a friendly in June 2015 in Paris, when Marouane Fellaini scored twice.
However, France have prevailed on each of the three occasions the pair have met at major tournament finals, with the last time being at the group stage of the European Championships in 1984 when Les Bleus ran out 5-0 winners on their way to claiming the title.