After all the thrills and spills of the past three weeks, we have an all-European World Cup semi-final picture. World Cup pools across the globe have been torn apart by Germany’s early exit combined with Spain, Argentina and Brazil also heading home. Now only France, Belgium, England and Croatia are still standing.
Let’s start with the France-Belgium showdown, which promises so much with the array of attacking stars in both line-ups.
Here are some of the key questions that will determine the outcome in St. Petersburg.
Can N’Golo Kante keep Kevin De Bruyne quiet?
De Bruyne’s more advanced role against Brazil raised Belgium’s ceiling for the tournament and certainly swung that game in their favour. The deeper role he was given during the group stage and against Japan just did not maximize his talent in the same way. On Tuesday, De Bruyne is sure to see plenty of Kante, who will be patrolling in front of the French back four to snuff out Belgium’s sweeping attacks. These two are familiar with each other from Premier League action – and, of course, De Bruyne scored the winner at Stamford Bridge last season. If he has room to operate and link up with Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, Belgium have a great chance of reaching the final.
How much time will the French full-backs spend in the final third?
Both Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez love to push forward and provide width when Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé drift infield. Part of Uruguay’s game plan in the quarter-final seemed to emphasize closing both full-backs down and denying them the chance to pour forward. It will be interesting to see whether Hazard and Nacer Chadli have the same instructions. Of course, France may choose to be a little more cautious with so much at stake. The further forward Pavard and Hernandez go, the more space that opens up for Belgium on the counter attack which is a real danger, as De Bruyne and company showed against Brazil.
Which Paul Pogba will show up?
Fans of France and Manchester United have become accustomed to posing this question. On his day, Pogba is a box-to-box star who drives his team forward and puts his stamp on a game. But he is equally capable of wasting possession and letting the action pass him by.
The Pogba-Marouane Fellaini clash seems to favour France, but that depends on whether Pogba is fully motivated. He has not been at his best thus far in Russia but, with a chance to reach the World Cup final, we should get the best version of Pogba on Tuesday.
With two deep benches, which substitute could swing the game?
There are lots of options here. France have the depth advantage with Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir and Thomas Lemar all capable of exploiting tired defences. Belgium can turn to Dries Mertens, Yannick Carrasco and Michy Batshuayi. Of those, Dembele seems the likeliest to pop up with a game-changing contribution.
It is crunch time on the sidelines too. Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez, who both entered the tournament with their fair share of doubters, will need to pick the right moments to send on fresh legs. It promises to be a tight, tense contest with a late piece of magic proving decisive.
Prediction: France 1-2 Belgium