Belgium and France meet in the World Cup semi-final at the Saint Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday.
Although the Tour de France cycle race would normally be the focus of French and Belgian sports fans at this time of year, it’s a fair bet that Tuesday’s World Cup semi-final here will beat the viewing figures of the annual cycle race in the two nations in question.
France look to return to the final of the World Cup for the first time since 2006, while the Belgians look to confirm the promise of their ‘golden generation’ and reach the final for the first time, reports Xinhua news agency.
The Belgians have won all five of their matches in Russia, scoring 14 goals and leaving Brazil and Japan by the wayside. In the quarter-final against Brazil they showed their adaptability and in the last 16 they showed their resilience by fighting back from 0-2 down against the Japanese.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez has shown that he can make changes to his system, using a 4-3-2-1 for most of the tournament, but adapting to a 4-3-3 to exploit Brazil’s weaknesses down the flanks.
Martinez has succeeded where his predecessors failed by making the team greater than the sum of its parts. The Spaniard has shown great tactical pragmatism by setting up his side to suit the characteristics of his best players and exploit the weakness of opponents. This was exemplified in the team’s 2-1 quarter-final victory over Brazil, when Kevin de Bruyne was deployed as a false nine while Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard where pulled wide.
It remains to be seen what system he will use against a French side that is rock-solid in midfield. One change forced on Martinez is at right back where he will have to find a replacement for the suspended Thomas Meunier. Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata may feature as a right-back.
Martinez dropped forward Dries Mertens against Brazil and fielded Nacer Chadli, who had scored the injury-time winning goal against Japan. Other midfield options include Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel and Yannick Carrasco.
The French drew one group game (against Denmark), but their World Cup has been one of constant progression built around goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, central defenders Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti and midfielders, N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba.
Olivier Giroud provides a focal point in attack. Add to that the pace of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, who will also drop back to help in the middle and Didier Deschamps has a team without any apparent weaknesses.
If Belgium persists with three central defenders, Deschamps will look to full-backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard to push forward and look to exploit spaces between the Belgian defensive trio of Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
France will have to be wary of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne’s pace on the break. Martinez and his players have already shown they can change their formation depending on their rivals and Tuesday promises to be an absorbing tactical battle.