After both seeing off South American opposition in the last eight, France and Belgium meet for a place in the 2018 World Cup final in Saint-Petersburg on Tuesday (19:00 BST, live on BBC1 TV).
Belgium were considered a solid outside bet before things got underway in Russia, but France are the only one of the five pre-tournament favourites still in the competition. Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain have been eliminated, leaving them to fly the flag.
While the only time France have really sparkled was in their 4-3 victory over Argentina in the last 16, they have been defensively strong throughout the tournament, whilst maintaining enough of an attacking threat to score the goals necessary for victory. If that is a bit of a disappointing approach given the talent in their squad, it has so far proved successful.
Didier Deschamps’ side comfortably came through their quarter-final against Uruguay on Friday. Raphael Varane rose well to head in a free-kick delivery and put them ahead towards the end of a tight first half, and that lead was maintained into the break thanks to a superb save from Hugo Lloris. When Antoine Griezmann’s long-range effort was fumbled into his own net by the Uruguayan goalkeeper just past the hour, the contest was already all but over.
France were very much in control thereafter, as they have been, at least in a defensive sense, since touching down in Russia. They had some struggles breaking down more cautiously minded opponents in the group stage, but clean sheets in three of their five matches to date shows how difficult they are to break down. With sturdy central defenders Varane and Samuel Umtiti ably protected by Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante that is perhaps unsurprising.
Now, though, comes the crunch. France made similar progress through to the final of Euro 2016 on home soil, only to fall to Portugal towards the end of a pretty dour 120 minutes of football, and a bit more might be required to avoid a repeat this time around. With the likes of Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba at his disposal, Deschamps has the necessary firepower to loosen the leash a little.
His opposite number Roberto Martinez rarely shies from such a gamble. Indeed, it was a series of bold decisions on his part that helped his side eliminate Brazil in a thrilling quarter-final in Kazan on Friday. He switched from his normal 3-4-2-1 formation to a back four, left Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku high and wide and gave Kevin de Bruyne freedom to drift in search of space to receive possession and get Belgium moving forward.
While Brazil could certainly have been a couple of goals up inside the opening 10 minutes, an own goal shortly thereafter gave Belgium the lead, and they added a second just past the half hour as De Bruyne finished crisply at the end of one of their numerous threatening breaks. They had the better of their opponents at both ends of the pitch throughout the opening period. There were some scary moments after the break, but they held on for a 2-1 win.
It will be interesting to see if the way in which Belgium approached that match was purely situational or whether, having played so well, particularly in the first half, it will again represent their strategy on Tuesday. It must be said that with Kante on the field, they are unlikely to find space to move forward rapidly on the counter attack so readily available.
Belgium have reached the quarter-final stage in each of their last two major international tournaments; by going one better this time out have matched their best ever World Cup performance, back at Mexico 1986. This is undoubtedly an excellent generation of footballers, and they will be confident of their ability to go toe-to-toe with France.
In truth, there is very little between the teams. In Russia, Belgium have been stronger in attack, while France have been supreme in defence. It may not be as pretty, but it is the latter approach that is likely to prevail in Saint-Petersburg. France can be fancied to reach a second consecutive major international final with victory over Belgium.
Our Preview’s France vs. Belgium Betting Tips Verdict
- Back France to win (in normal time) @ 6/4 with Betfair.