It was a case of “Europe 2 South America 0” in Russia on Friday as France and Belgium overcame Uruguay and Brazil respectively.
While the first result wasn’t much of a shock, particularly as it was always going to be a case of contrasting styles and one got the sense that France would just have that bit too much, the second result is that bit more noteworthy.
Belgium overpowered Brazil and sent them packing, with a display so far removed from the lacklustre showing against Japan that it will have made many reevaluate the Red Devils’ prospects of winning the whole thing?
But what did we learn from a day that the last two non-European sides were sent packing, and two absurdly talented squads set up a semi-final showdown against each other?
France still haven’t found their top gear
There is a sense, from may of France’s performances so far, that they are doing ‘just enough’ to earn victories and progress through the rounds. None of the displays so far, patches vs. Peru and Argentina aside, have been overly impressive in and of themselves.
And yet, they have risen to every challenge presented to them thus far. The clash against Argentina meant outscoring a top-heavy team and they did that, and against Uruguay they were tasked with doing enough to break down a stubborn defence and again, they achieved that.
The performance level is one thing. bit as long as they keep rising to challenge and just about exceeding them, then that sense of nonchalant determination could see them lift the World Cup.
Without Cavani, Uruguay’s game plan was fatally disrupted
From defence to midfield, Uruguay’s game plan was, generally, sound. The strong defensive discipline that had been prominent for their first four games was largely in place (save for Muslera’s moment of madness) and they were generally good at stifling the French attack for large parts of the game.
However, it was in their attack where they had the most problems. Edinson Cavani had just started finding his form at this tournament before he was cruelly ruled out of Friday’s game through injury. Without the PSG man and (with Luis Suarez isolated as a result), Uruguay rarely looked like troubling the French rearguard.
Belgium’s Golden Generation are finally coming of age
The contrast between Belgium’s performance against Japan to that which they showed against Brazil was like night and day. As wretched as they were for large periods against the former, they were masterful against the latter and full value for their victory.
Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne (finally) in a more advanced position – the players who were deemed as Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ finally justified the hype by playing together and for each other to pull off arguably the national team’s greatest-ever result.
They are now 90 minutes away from a World Cup final – and if they like that again, they’ll be more than confident of clearing that last hurlde.
Which of the two semi-finalists is best equipped to win the final?
Despite Belgium’s heroics in knocking Brazil out of the tournament, one gets the sense that this is the peak – or, at least, close to it – of how well this team can perform. It was fantastic, but they have played their hand.
With France, however, it is a different story. They have been progressing through the rounds at an almost leisurely pace, not truly tested by any side yet. That either suggests that this is a supremely brilliant Bleus team capable of sweeping away all before them, or else they just haven’t yet met a team able and willing to hurt them.
France have a few higher gears left to find in this competition – if Deschamps will allow them off the leash long enough to find them – and, for that reason, they should go into next week’s semi as the team most likely to make the final.
Tite got his tactics and lineup wrong on the night
What now for Brazil? Tite was, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, the one who was supposed to bring balance back to the force. With a dominant qualification campaign and a happy, confident squad, there were many who simply couldn’t see past the Selecao as the favourites to win World Cup number six and retake their place at the top of the international football pyramid.
And yet, they went out with something of a whimper in the end. Brazil were obviously missing Dani Alves at right-back, but Tite’s starting lineups – and the subsequent substitutions which ultimately showed them up – were flawed. Roberto Firmino and Douglas Costa had done more than enough to be considered for a starting role, and yet they were limited to cameo appearances at the end of games while the underperforming Gabriel Jesus retained Tite’s support.
There were others too which are magnified in hindsight, but the fact remains that Brazil were not prepared for this tournament and that is down to the manager. It remains to be seen if he will stick around – reports suggest that the CBF want him to stay – regardless, he must take responsibility for his side’s disappointing showing in Russia.