Goal-Fest Possible In France-Belgium World Cup Semifinal

By JEROME PUGMIRE, AP Sports Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Considering the attacking strength of France and Belgium, there’s potential for a goal-fest when the European neighbors meet in the World Cup semifinals.

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois saves from Brazil’s Neymar during the quarterfinal match between Brazil and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kazan Arena, in Kazan, Russia, Friday, July 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

There was less at stake the last time the teams last went head-to-head at the World Cup, a 4-2 victory for France in the third-place match in 1986. That was the last competitive match between the two countries but there have been eight international friendlies since.

Belgium won two of those, including the last one: an exhibition three years ago at Stade de France when the Belgians took a three-goal lead five minutes into the second half and held on to win 4-3.

With the second-youngest roster at the World Cup, France has shown no fear and advanced to its first World Cup semifinal since 2006 led by 19-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe and a pair of inexperienced attacking fullbacks in Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez.

“We’re not scared of anyone,” Pavard said. “We’ve been confident from the start and we’re not asking any questions of ourselves.”

Coach Didier Deschamps, who was captain when France won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship, has instilled a steely mentality.

“He motivates the troops with strong words,” Pavard said. “We’re ready to go to war with him.”

CONFIDENT COACHING

Deschamps made bold decisions to start Pavard on the right and Lucas Hernandez on the left. The pair, both 22, have only 20 international appearances between them but are playing with good composure.

In Belgium, there were doubts about Roberto Martinez’s ability to transfer the country’s individual talent into a collective force. Fans welcomed his arrival in August 2016 with lukewarm enthusiasm because he’d only recently been fired by Everton in the Premier League.

His tenure began with a 2-0 home loss to Spain, but since then Belgium is unbeaten in 23 games and has scored 78 goals — being held scoreless in only one of those games. With former France striker Thierry Henry as an assistant coach, Belgium leads the scoring in Russia with 14 goals in its five World Cup matches.

“He’s given the team the desire to attack,” French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet said of Henry’s influence on the Belgian team. “The forwards go to see him. He’s held in high esteem.”

Martinez’s tactics have stood out, too.

With Belgium trailing Japan 2-0 in the round of 16, Martinez replaced two wide players with two midfielders and they both scored.

Belgium’s Vincent Kompany celebrates towards his teams supporters after defeating Brazil in their quarterfinal match between Brazil and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kazan Arena, in Kazan, Russia, Friday, July 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

LLORIS VS. COURTOIS

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and France No. 1 Hugo Lloris could be busy.

Lloris has been criticized during the past year after errors for France and Tottenham.

In France’s World Cup opener against Australia, he let a long shot go past him and watched in relief as it hit the crossbar. But Lloris appeared to be at his commanding best in the quarterfinal win over Uruguay, rushing off his line to push away a low cross and later making a superb low save.

Belgium has height and heading ability in defenders Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini.

Courtois entered the tournament as one of the top goalkeepers and has enhanced reputation with an outstanding quarterfinal performance against Brazil.

French striker Olivier Giroud thinks Lloris has the edge over Courtois, his club teammate at Chelsea.

“They’re both very good on their line, but Hugo is more explosive,” Giroud said. “The best is Hugo. Sorry, Thibaut.”

MEUNIER OUT

Belgium must cope without defender Thomas Meunier, whose runs down the flank are a key part of Belgium’s attack.

Meunier is suspended after tripping Brazil star Neymar and earning a second yellow card of the tournament. In Meunier’s absence, Martinez may scrap his 3-5-2 formation with wingbacks, and instead switch to a back four in a more compact defense.

HAZARD OUTLET

Star forward Eden Hazard is known for his attacking prowess, but he also is an outlet for Belgium’s defense. Hazard runs at pace and cuts inside. Because of his quick feet, change of direction and exquisite close control, he is difficult to tackle and this often draws a foul.

MBAPPE THREAT

While Giroud has yet to score at this World Cup, his ability to hold the ball up suits France’s system and allows Mbappe to make runs down the right flank. It also gives Antoine Griezmann space to roam.

“I try to create gaps for my teammates,” Giroud said. “It’s my unselfish side.”

He needs one goal to move ahead of France great Zinedine Zidane. They are tied on fourth overall with 31.

Griezmann has scored two penalty kicks and set up Raphael Varane’s headed goal against Uruguay. But he has not shown the form he did when he led France in scoring en route to the Euro 2016 final, when Les Bleus lost to Portugal.

Belgium struggled against Japan when defending quick and mobile players.

___

Follow Jerome Pugmire on Twitter

___

More AP World Cup coverage HERE

Contests & Events

WIN BRAVES TICKETS!

Keep listening to 680 The Fan throughout the Braves season for your chance to win a pair of tickets to see a game at Truist Park! Multiple chances to win EVERY DAY!

FEEL THE LOVE & WIN $68!

Nominate someone who inspires you through acts of kindness or charity to receive a $68 VISA gift card courtesy of Gwinnett Subaru and Georgia’s Own Credit Union! DETAILS HERE!

Win Truist Park

WIN TRUIST PARK! Join the 680 Fan Club and you could win a Truist Park REPLICA for your desk! Enter HERE Today!

Ga Lottery Jackpot Inning 2020

Register now to be a contestant in the GA Lottery Jackpot Inning! If your name is called and one of our Braves hits a homer, you’ll win the day’s Jackpot! No winner? The jackpot rolls over the next day for an even BIGGER PRIZE! Enter to win with The Braves HERE!

No events are currently scheduled.