It has been a World Cup of shocks and surprises, but actually one trend that dates back decades – European teams tend to dominate the tournament on their own continent – continues to ring true.
France, Belgium, Croatia and England are the semi-finalists for 2018, and while the latter pair have taken advantage of a straightforward draw the former duo have done things the hard way.
The French have seen off a pair of tricky South American opponents in Argentina and Uruguay in the knockout phase of the competition, while Belgium have come from 0-2 down to beat Japan and despatched favourites Brazil courtesy of a tactical masterstroke from boss Roberto Martinez.
He brought in the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini to butch up his midfield, and that allowed Kevin de Bruyne to play almost as a false nine with Eden Hazard left and Romelu Lukaku right.
It was a move which made the Belgians much more solid at the back, while freeing up De Bruyne to get his pinpoint passes away in the final third.
France have been rather more one-dimensional – not that it hasn’t worked for them so far, although the continued criticism of Didier Deschamps is that he isn’t quick enough to adapt to changes within a match from a tactical perspective.
It’s a fascinating semi-final in store on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg then, and you can make a strong case for either side – as confirmed by the bookmakers’ non-committal betting odds.
So is there a way for punters to tell these two sides apart?
French Fancied But Has Luck Been on Their Side?
If you’re going to win a major football tournament, you could always use a slice of luck.
Whether good fortune or by design, France have now scored with their last six shots on target; ironically, enough to beat Argentina and Uruguay.
It suggests they are carving out good opportunities, but the feeling they have been lucky, to some extent, won’t go away: there was Antoine Griezmann’s shot which slithered through the fingers of the Uruguayan keeper, and Benjamin Pavard’s wonder-strike which got Les Bleus back into the game against the Argentines. On another day, that could have flown into Row Z.
The French lost the expected goals (xG) count against Uruguay and were gifted a couple of goals by Argentina’s defensive disarray, and so perhaps the conclusion we can come to is that Deschamps’ side are a fragile favourite with the bookmakers.
Belgians Buoyed by Force of Fellaini
Two-nil down with just 20 minutes to go against Japan, Roberto Martinez must have secretly thought that Belgium’s World Cup campaign was over.
He mustered one final throw of the dice, bringing on Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, and that enhanced physicality paved instant dividends; Fellaini netting once and proving a major handful for the Japanese at set pieces.
Martinez kept the faith and started the pair against Brazil, and it worked, by and large. The hirsute bruisers, Fellaini and Witsel, worked tirelessly in front of their back three, while Lukaku enjoyed being isolated against Marcelo on the right. De Bruyne had acres to play in with Brazil’s regular defensive midfielder, Casemiro, suspended.
It wasn’t perfect, and Belgium were once again caught out down the flanks with Thomas Meunier and Chadli not up to the defensive side of their wing back role.
The Brazilians carved out some decent chances, but Martinez’s tactical acumen would win the day in the end.
This is another game, like Brazil vs Belgium, where you fancy that the attackers have the edge on the defenders.
This could well be another tactically-driven encounter. If Deschamps is brave and posts Griezmann and Kylie Mbappe high on the flanks, it will give Belgium’s wing backs a real headache as to when to stick and when to twist.
The French will outnumber Belgium in midfield, with Pogba, Kante and Matuidi or Tolisso in there against Fellaini and Witsel. De Bruyne may have to drop in to make an extra man in the midfield, leaving Hazard and Lukaku isolated on opposite sides of the pitch.
Martinez may have another trick or two up his sleeve, but the basic set-ups lend themselves to French dominance.
Both teams have shown fragility in defence, and both have proven match-winners in attack. This might be one of those matches where punters are advised to eschew the typical match bet markets, and instead go hunting for goals: Both Teams to Score, at 20/23, is a fine investment.