Both France and Belgium faced pretty much the same question in the build-up to the World Cup – can a team with great individual talent come good collectively and deliver the goods at the biggest stage?
Having knocked out the two remaining South American teams in their respective quarterfinals, the European neighbours have come a long way in emphatically answering that question. Who has done that better will be known when they clash in the semi-final at the Krestovsky Stadium on Tuesday.
If they win, Belgium will mark their first World Cup final. France, if they go through to their third final, can look to repeat the win of 20 years ago.
There have been times when they have looked less than convincing in this campaign, but France and Belgium are both peaking at the right time. France topped their group after scraping past Australia and Peru 2-1 and 1-0 respectively and then playing out a goalless draw with Denmark.
They then hit top gear – at least the attack did – in a 4-3 thriller with Argentina in the Round of 16. Against Uruguay, they didn’t replicate the performance going forward, but they compensated with a composed showing defensively, securing a 2-0 win.
Against a Belgium side boasting of one of the best set of offensive players, France will need a performance even better to their last one where they kept the Uruguayan attack in check throughout.
Blaise Matuidi’s return after serving a one-match suspension will boost France. The Juventus midfielder is likely to partner N’Golo Kante in central midfield with Paul Pogba playing in front of them. Matuidi’s inclusion is expected to be the only change to Didier Deschamps’ side.
Tussle in the middle
He and Kante will be locked in a battle with Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, and the outcome of these individual battles could shape which way the tie swings.
The attacking French triumvirate of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud has grown with every game and Deschamps is unlikely to tinker with that formation.
At the back, Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti will be dealing with the threat of Romelu Lukaku, who has spearheaded Belgium’s lethal counter-attacks. It is the ability of Belgium to quickly transfer from defence to attack that France will be most wary of and Lukaku is likely to face heavy scrutiny from Varane and Co.
Roberto Martinez’s Belgium will miss right wing-back Thomas Meunier, due to suspension. In the absence of the man who helped check Neymar in the 2-1 win over Brazil , it remains to be seen whether Martinez opts for a four-man backline instead of his preferred three.
Thomas Vermaelen could start though Belgium may have to field makeshift full-backs if they switch to a four-man defence.
Marouane Fellaini started alongside Axel Witsel against Brazil last week. To counter France’s superiority in midfield, the hard-tackling Fellaini is again expected to start. The lanky Manchester United midfielder could be tasked with tracking club mate Pogba as well as Griezmann.
How Martinez uses his three attackers is unclear. Against Brazil, he put De Bruyne in an advanced false-nine role and it rattled the South Americans as Lukaku dragged the defence wide on the right.
United forward Lukaku’s pace, positioning and strength means he can be an asset on the right wing again. However, having used the trick against Brazil, Martinez may not attempt it straightaway against France.
Eden Hazard, on the other hand, has been the major creative outlet for Belgium. He has often dropped deep to let De Bruyne and Lukaku thrive. The trio has developed great camaraderie and Martinez will hope they can pull it off again.