‘There is a big rivalry between us’
SAINT PETERSBURG, July 9, (AFP): World Cup favourites France are targeting the final in Russia two decades after their 1998 triumph with one of their greatest players, Thierry Henry, plotting their downfall from the dugout of opponents Belgium.
The European neighbours meet in Tuesday’s first semifinal in Saint Petersburg for the right to play England or Croatia in Sunday’s showpiece in Moscow.
Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Henry, who was part of the squad that won the World Cup on home soil 20 years ago, is now alongside Belgium coach Roberto Martinez and eyeing the chinks in France’s armour.
“It will be bizarre to have him up against us,” said France striker Olivier Giroud. “He is a living legend of French football.
“He has given so much to the France team and we have got a lot of respect for what he has done. But we’re not thinking about it too much, we’re going to be focused on the pitch and our game.”
A slick Belgium side boasting the talents of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are the only team to have won all their matches in Russia and are the top scorers, with 14 goals.
Confidence is sky-high after they ousted Neymar’s Brazil in the quarter-finals but they will come up against formidable opponents in France as they try to reach a first ever World Cup final.
Didier Deschamps’ side, with Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe up front, struggled for goals in their group matches but have now hit their stride, dominating Uruguay after beating Argentina.
France will start the semifinal in Saint Petersburg as favourites, with an impressive mix of youth and experience allied to tournament nous after they reached the Euro 2016 final.
With Hugo Lloris impressing in goal and a solid midfield of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, the one potential weakness for France could be their inexperienced defence.
Belgium’s Thomas Meunier will miss the game after picking up a second yellow card but France will be buoyed by the return of defensive midfielder Blaise Matuidi, after sitting out a suspension of his own.
With Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and De Bruyne, they lost in the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals and at the same stage at Euro 2016, but under Martinez in Russia they have already taken an extra step after stunning Brazil in the last eight in Kazan.
“They are a great team with a very good generation of players who have been playing together for several years,” admitted France striker Giroud, who plays with Hazard and Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea.
“We don’t want to have them taking the mickey out of us. There is a big rivalry between France and Belgium, it’s like a derby match.”
Beyond the geographical and linguistic ties, many of these players also know each other intimately from the Premier League.
Pogba and Lukaku were already close friends before becoming colleagues at Manchester United. But Hazard sums up better than anyone the close links between the nations.
Born in the French-speaking part of Belgium, he came through as a player across the border at Lille, and was the outstanding player in the team that won the French league and cup double in 2011 before eventually moving on to Chelsea.
Now he is the talisman in a Belgium team who have won all five games in Russia so far and are undefeated in 24 matches, although as a boy he idolised Zinedine Zidane.
The French will remember well what happened when the teams last met, with Belgium tearing them apart in a 4-3 friendly win in Paris in June 2015.
Mbappe, still just 19, has already moved clubs for 180 million euros ($212 million) and the Paris Saint-Germain forward announced himself on the World Cup stage with his brilliant performance in France’s 4-3 win over Argentina in the last 16.
Deschamps’ side were less thrilling, but equally efficient, as they saw off Uruguay in the quarter-finals. They will need to be at their very best defensively against the Belgians, and look to Mbappe and Griezmann to get the better of the opposition defence.
“To do what (Mbappe) is doing at his age, I have never seen that, apart from Messi,” said Belgium’s Chadli, scorer of their winning goal against Japan in the last 16.
“We came through the Japan game, then we broke down a barrier by beating Brazil. When you beat Brazil you don’t fear anyone.”
Chadli could play as a right wing-back for Belgium in the absence of the suspended Thomas Meunier, with Thomas Vermaelen possibly starting.