France, Belgium, England, Croatia - the 4 remaining teams in Russia are now just one tantalising tie away from Sunday’s final. The World Cup semi-finals will be tense, tight and – hopefully - fascinating. Here’s a look at one player from each country who still has a point to prove on the biggest stage.
France – Olivier Giroud
So far at the World Cup, Giroud hasn’t managed a single shot on target in 4 and a bit games. Granted, he’s in the team more for his power and hold-up play, but France can’t keep relying on their defenders to find the net. Giroud is a striker, after all. He is also exactly the kind of striker that Belgium’s Vincent Kompany likes playing against. Will Didier Deschamps replace Giroud with a pacier option? It looks unlikely in the World Cup semi-finals, but France do have Ousmane Dembélé, Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin waiting in the wings.
Belgium – Dries Mertens
Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens – could Belgium fit all 4 of their superstars into the same starting line-up? That was manager Roberto Martínez’s World Cup challenge and in the group stage against Panama and Tunisia, he just about made it work. Knock-out football, however, is a different kettle of fish. 2-0 down against Japan, Martínez turned to his Plan B, Marouane Fellaini, and that meant taking off one of the Big Four. Mertens was the unlucky one to miss out; both on the amazing comeback against Japan, and then the quarter-final win over Brazil. Mertens won’t start against France in the World Cup semi-finals, but Belgium may well need to turn to their Plan B again…
England – Raheem Sterling
Sterling hasn’t scored yet at World Cup 2018, but don’t let that fool you - he’s still played a huge role in England’s success. In the quarter-finals, he caused Sweden all kinds of problems with his tireless running and clever movement. Unfortunately, once through, Sterling couldn’t take his chances. It’s now 3 years since his last international goal but that shouldn’t stop Croatia’s defence from worrying. With his speed and skill, Sterling could be Dejan Lovren’s worst nightmare in the World Cup semi-finals.
Croatia - Ivan Rakitić
So much of Croatia’s success at World Cup 2018 depends on their world-class midfield pairing – Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić. The team cruised through the group stage but since then, it’s been a real struggle. Modrić has produced moments of magic but, aside from his two penalty shoot-out winners, Rakitić has been strangely quiet. Formation is key. In a midfield two with Modrić, he has to sit deeper in front of the defence, but in a midfield three with Marcelo Brozović, he can play with more attacking freedom. It will be interesting to see which option Croatia go for against England.