We are but four games from finishing the 2018 men's World Cup. Two semifinals, a final and a third-place game, then it's all gone for four years. FOUR YEARS!
Want to go into Wendesday's games confidently, knowing as much about France, Belgium, England and Croatia as possible? I got you.
Belgium won Group G, winning all three games Panama (3-0), Tunisia (5-2) and England (1-0) in the group. Belgium topped Japan 3-2 in the Round of 16, with Nacer Chadli scoring in the 94th minute to secure the win against a plucky Japan team (we love you Japan, great job this year). In the quarterfinals, Belgium bested Brazil 2-1, mastering the counter-attack and withstanding Brazil's best efforts. Bobby Martinez used Romelu Lukaku on the wing effectively to beat Brazil. (Read that again. This World Cup is wild!)
France won Group C, beating Australia (2-1) and Peru (1-0) before drawing with Denmark (0-0). It was right around this time that Kylian Mbappe decided he was tired of being humble, scoring two against Argentina in France's 4-3 win in the Round of 16. It might be the last time we see Lionel Messi in the Argentina shirt, and it might have been the greatest match this tournament. France topped Uruguay 2-0 in the quarterfinals with an effective and smothering gameplan.
Belgium have been excellent on the counter thanks to their excellent defense and front three. I think we saw the most excellent form of Belgium when they faced Brazil in the quarterfinals. Kevin De Bruyne (who had been used deeper in the midfield) lined up centrally with Eden Hazard and the aforementioned Lukaku on the wings. You have the big man in Lukaku... who's good at receiving aerial passes and shooting............. lined up........................... outside? Yeah. It's not what a lot of people would think was gonna work, but tell that to Neymar.
France's individual talent is what makes them tick. Mbappe is knocking on the door to the upper echelons of soccer greatness, and he could be the next French player to reach the same heights as Thierry Henry (Henry is a one-of-one for his ball control plus finishing, and he's currently coaching Belgium). There is nobody better right now in the world than N'Golo Kante at breaking up opposing attacks. And Paul Pogba, freed from Jose Mourinho's shackles at Manchester United, is the box-to-box monster we all knew he could be.
I think this is the harder of the two matches to pick. It's literally strength vs. strength here. Belgium's strongest unit on the field is its defense, which will square off against an attacking unit featuring Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann. I think that Belgium's bigger center backs can be exploited by France's speed, so that's something to watch, but in terms of quality I'd say they're very close. When Belgium does stop France's offense, who's there to stop Belgium's counter? Kante, who's only the best player in the world at breaking up counter attacks. This game is so evenly matched that we could literally be talking about one mistake being the difference in the World Cup semifinals.
I think Belgium gets by, something like 2-1 or 3-2 in extra time, but I am not at all confident in it. I wrote this and want to be right.
Croatia won all their group games too, besting Group D's Nigeria (2-0), Argentina (3-0) and Iceland (2-1). In the Round of 16, Croatia squeaked past Denmark 3-2 in penalties after the game finished 1-1 in regulation. It was penalties again for Croatia in the quarterfinals, this time a 4-3 victory against Russia in penalties after drawing 2-2 after 120 minutes. Croatia has landed in the semifinals because they refuse to die. I LOVE THEM.
England came in second in Group G, beating Tunisia (2-1) and Panama (6-1) before losing to Belgium (1-0). They beat Colombia 4-3 in penalty kicks after extra time ended 1-1 in a game that really shouldn't have ended with 22 men on the field. After that, England beat the Zlatan-less Swedes 2-0 in the quarterfinals.
The midfield makes Croatia work. The defense and attack are fine for Croatia, but the midfield is unmatched internationally. Croatia have Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic and the best of them all, Luka Modric prowling the middle of the park. Good luck to anyone going up against that, but let's talk about Luka Modric for a minute here. Look at his game log for the past year. That is a LOT of mileage on the legs of a 32-year-old player. But who was out here HUSTLIN' in the 121st minute of back-to-back overtime games in the World Cup? Modric.
It's not as simple as one player for England, but it's one very specific strength: set pieces. Eight of England's 11 goals in this tournament have come from corners, free kicks or penalties. It's definitely playing to their strengths, as they have some aerially talented players in Harry Kane and Harry Maguire. It's scary to hitch your cart to that wagon, it feels. If you don't get any luck with penalties or fouls going your way, what do you do?
I think England takes this one. Croatia has an extra hour's worth of soccer under their belts and their quarterfinal matchup against Russia saw them lose several players to injury. It feels like a 3-1 to England, but it's never in your best interest to bet on England.
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