Belgium meet France in the first of the 2018 World Cup semi-finals this week in an all-European affair in Saint Petersburg.
Both have laid waste to the best that South America has to offer in order to get here, but picking a winner is, on paper at least, a tough task given the staggering individual brilliance in both sides.
However, by Tuesday night we will know which of these two has made the promised land – but how do the best elevens stack up side by side?
Thibaut Courtois (Belgium). Called into action probably a bit more than he would have liked or expected in front of a defence that can seem a bit unsure of itself, but Courtois has been extremely dependable in this tournament thus far. Made some brilliant saves against Brazil in Friday’s quarter-final.
Thomas Meunier (Belgium). While Belgium have had trouble on the left wing-back slot, the right has not been a problem. Thomas Meunier might have found starts harder to come by at PSG since the arrival of Dani Alves, but he’s showing here exactly why the French giants bought him in the first place.
Raphael Varane (France). France have generally been solid at the back, and a lot of that is down to the partnership of Varane and Samuel Umtiti. The Real Madrid man is fast atoning for the mistakes of 2014 – if he can maintain that form against a formidable Belgian threat, France will reach the final.
Jan Vertonghen (Belgium). Belgium’s defence hasn’t looked overy strong as a unit at this World Cup, but Vertonghen himself has looked solid at the back. The Tottenham man has been commanding in the air (at both ends) and, while the France front four will give the centre-half his most rigorous test so far, his form suggests he is up to it.
Benjamin Pavard (France). Even aside from his Goal of the tournament contender, this World Cup has been the making of Pavard. Strong in the tackle at the back and a fine option on the right going forward, Stuttgart are already bracing themselves for the barrage of offers they will undoubtedly be receiving for the 22-year-old.
N’Golo Kante (France). The impenetrable wall of the French midfield, any success they were going to have in this competition would always hinge on the tireless energy of Kante. With an average of 2.5 tackles and 3.5 interceptions in the centre, the Chelsea man is the stopper that allows Paul Pogba the licence to venture further forward.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium). De Bruyne has taken a while to grow into this tournament, but gave a timely reminder of his ability against Brazil. Key to this was the decision to move the Manchester City man into a more advanced position, operating as a flash nine instead of deeper in central midfield where he had struggled.
Eden Hazard (Belgium). A strong contender for player of the tournament, Hazard has been immense for much of this World Cup. Leading from the front with brilliant displays of dribbling and creativity, the Chelsea forward has been critical to Belgium’s route to the last four (and, potentially, beyond).
Kylian Mbappe (France). Suggesting that he was an unknown quantity would be ludicrous, given the fact that he is the second most expensive player of all time, but Mbappe virtually has the Young Player of the Tournament award sewn up there. The PSG forward has been brilliant for much of the campaign, his wonderful showing against Argentina a particular highlight.
Antoine Griezmann (France). Looked lost as a central striker against Australia in the opener, but has been much better since being utilised as a number ten from there on out. With Olivier Giroud in front of him (and Pogba behind), Griezmann has become the focial point of the France attack, with the freedom of movement to be a constant threat to opposition defences.
Romelu Lukaku (Belgium). Lukaku was the driving force in Belgium’s progression past the group stage with four goals in two games, firmly establishing his Golden Boot credentials in the process. Although he hasn’t scored since, his contribution – both on and off the ball – against Japan and Belgium was absolutely vital, and a testament to his selflessness and work rate.
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