Johannesburg, July 10 – As the semi-finals battle kicks off in the ongoing FIFA World Cup to decide the two finalists for the July 15 showdown at the Luzhniki Stadium, the four combatants must first slug it out for the two available slots in the grand finale.
While Les Bleus of France are hoping to repeat their success in 1998, their next door neighbour, Le Diable Rouge (The Red Devils) of Belgium will play in their first semi-final in 32 years.
The World Cup rivalry between the two European Union members dates back to the 1938 World Cup which France hosted and Les Bleus defeated Le Diable Rouge 3-1 in an opening round encounter.
It will be 48 years when the teams would meet again, though in less significant circumstances, France defeated Belgium 4-2 after extra time, in the third place match of the Mexico 1986 World Cup.
France and Belgium are very familiar foes, having played each other a record 73 times.
Head to Head — the Belgians have the better record, having won 30 to the French’s 24 and 19 games ending in a draw.
But in competitive games, France have won 5 with Belgium winning 3 and drawing 3.
The last match between the two teams took place in 2015 with Belgium running out 4-3 winners with two Marouane Fellaini goals in an exciting friendly in Paris.
This will be France’s sixth World Cup semi-final; they were beaten in their first three in 1958, 1982 and 1986 just as they had played in the semi-final in 1998 and 2006.
But this time around, the Didier Deschamps tutored squad looks fired up to go for broke as they seek to emulate the class of France ’98 squad of which Deschamps was the World Cup winning captain.
On his part, Coach Roberto Martinez will seek to use the “Golden Generation’’ of Belgium talents under his tutelage to grab one of the final slot for the grand finale at the Luzhniki in Moscow.
Belgium’s only appearance in the semi-finals was in the 1986 World Cup where they lost 2-0 to eventual winners Argentina under the charismatic inspiration of Diego Maradona.
In terms of pedigree, France have what it takes to go all the way, while Belgium have the skills, both have beaten some of the best en route and, statistically, the Red Devils hold the upper hand.
Croatia vs England
To get to the semi-finals, Croatia had to play through two grueling penalty shootouts against Denmark and host Russia, and the Vatreni look poised for their showdown against the Three Lions of England on Wednesday in Moscow.
England on their part finally broke their decade-long jinx of spot-kicks in the last 16, and the likelihood of another penalty shootout cannot be ruled out in the must-win-match between the adversaries.
Undoubtedly the back-to-back extra-time and penalty shootout the Croatians had had to endure in their Round of 16 and quarter-final matches will surely take its toll on the players.
While England literarily strolled through their match against Sweden, they look favoured to win the highly anticipated match.
Head-to-head the two countries have played seven games with England recording four wins, one draw and two losses.
For Coach Gareth Southgate and the Three Lions, the Croatia assignment is one they must tackle with all the skill at their disposal to realise their ambition of playing in the finals to bring the FIFA trophy home.
Harry Kane would have to be more clinical in front of goal in order to add to his tally of six goals and possibly emerge as the winner of the famed Golden Boot in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
England emerged Champions in the 1966 edition of the World Cup which they hosted and have played in only one semi-final appearance in 14 tournaments.
Croatia in their first ever participation in World Cup got to the semi-finals and eventually came third in the France 1998 edition and also seem poised to make history in Russia. (NAN)