France vs Belgium: Player battles to look forward to

Belgium and France are well-matched in terms of the quality of personnel and experience at the top level, and it may well be a match that is decided by the decisions made by the two men on the touchline.

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, center, speaks to his players during a training session on the eve of the semifinal against France.   -  AP

Belgium was not one of the favourites to win the World Cup, but its status has improved manifold ahead of the semifinal against France. It is the only semifinalist with five wins from five matches without needing a penalty shootout. It takes on a French team which has overcome tests that can be deemed stiffer than Belgium’s, to reach the semifinals. And these two teams will face off on Tuesday (July 10) with barely anything separating them.

Belgium and France are well-matched in terms of the quality of personnel and experience at the top level, and it may well be a match that is decided by the decisions made by the two men on the touchline.

France’s 4-3 win over Argentina, achieved playing largely on the counter-attack, showcased Didier Deschamps’ willingness to cede possession despite having technically-gifted players who can achieve a positive result playing in the exact opposite way.

A week later, Roberto Martinez pulled off a tactical masterstroke to knock out five-time champion Brazil, also by playing on the counter-attack, though the switching between formations when in and out of possession (3-4-3 with the ball and 4-3-3 without it) was particularly fascinating.

And therefore, the tactical side of Tuesday’s first World Cup semifinal is intriguing to say the least.

Here, Sportstar has put together the four player duels to keep an eye on.

Benjamin Pavard vs Eden Hazard

 

The lack of an out-and-out winger in Uruguay’s 4-3-1-2 system gave Benjamin Pavard, the France right-back, an easy ride in the quarterfinal.

On Tuesday, though, Pavard will be up against Eden Hazard in a battle that has the potential to be decisive. Hazard is one of France’s biggest threats and, even though he did not have an assist or a goal to show for his endeavour, his contribution in Belgium’s 2-1 win over Brazil was immense.

His quick turn of pace, body strength to withstand challenges, great close control and quick decision-making make Hazard an incredibly difficult player to mark and defend against.

Regardless of how Belgium lines up, Hazard will play on the left and test Pavard’s defensive qualities.

Kevin De Bruyne vs N’Golo Kante

 

Kante is unlikely to be assigned to man-mark De Bruyne, but, as the deepest midfielder in France’s setup, Kante will at some point engage with the Manchester City midfielder in a midfield tussle.

A few players in world football can boast of having the discipline and tactical awareness like that of Kante, the attributes a defensive midfielder can’t do without against most and certainly against De Bruyne.

The Belgian played as a False 9 against Brazil and he may be played in a similar role again, with Romelu Lukaku having thrived as a wide forward cutting in from the right flank.

Kante’s ability to win back the ball and deny players like De Bruyne time makes him dangerous.

Ousmane Dembele vs Toby Alderweireld

 

With Thomas Meunier suspended for the semifinal after picking a second yellow card in the quarterfinal, Alderweireld may well be deployed as a right-back. Also, with Belgium potentially playing with only one out-and-out forward, France may revert to the 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1) system that it had been playing in until the quarterfinals.

A combination of these two means Dembele, who might replace Corentin Tolisso, and Alderweireld could face off on France’s left-hand-side.

Dembele is quick, but what sets him apart from most other wingers is that he is two-footed. So, Alderweireld cannot afford to give space on either side, with Dembele well-capable of dribbling past him and either putting in a dangerous cross or having a shot on goal.

Alderweireld hasn’t played as a right-back for a long time and so, he already has a sizeable adjustment to make in terms of positioning and awareness.

Kylian Mbappe vs Jan Vertonghen/Nacer Chadli

 

Belgium’s backline is unlikely to play as high up the pitch as Argentina did, thereby leaving acres of space behind for Mbappe to run into and cause havoc. Yet, this 19-year-old French forward has the trickery, intelligence and speed to unsettle any defender.

Vertonghen (in pic) and Chadli, the left-sided centre-half and wingback respectively, face the massive challenge of neutralising Mbappe. Such is Mbappe’s threat that Vertonghen and Chadli will double up on the Frenchman.

Mbappe’s two-goal show against Argentina, to go with winning a penalty which was converted by Antoine Griezmann, proved that he can make decisive contributions with his skillset.

For Belgium to progress to the final, it must keep Mbappe quiet.

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