Four Ballon d'Or candidates take to the field as France and Belgium face off in World Cup semi-final

Alex Rea 9/07/2018
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Stars in shirts aim to put a star on their shirt as Europe’s shining lights, France and Belgium, do battle for a place in the World Cup final on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg.

Both nations are brimming with generational talents and the two have already achieved their minimum requirement for the tournament by reaching the last-four.

However, Les Bleus and the Red Devils are the two best sides left and have already come through a trial of fire to get here.

Didier Deschamps has steered his team past South American duo Argentina and Uruguay in the knockouts, while Roberto Martinez’s men produced a stunning fightback to break Japan hearts before bringing Brazil to tears in the quarter-final.

Now, they both reach for the stars and so with that in mind, we examine some of the key questions ahead of the semi-final clash.

GOLDEN GENERATION’S LAST CHANCE?

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From Belgium’s starting XI which was knocked out in the 2014 World Cup by Argentina, nine remain. Of the XI to be eliminated by Wales at Euro 2016, eight are in Russia.

World Cup 2018 represents the final rotation for much of Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ with only Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois not nearing or hitting 30 in two year’s time from the expected team to face France.

And while they were considered dark horses for the two previous tournaments, this time around the narrative has shifted.

Indeed, heading into this World Cup, Belgium were no longer a team of potential but one which promised to finally deliver on its precocious stock.

So far Martinez has managed to cajole his stable of stars into contenders, showing tactical talent of his own in the process – particularly in masterminding the first-half evisceration of Brazil.

That victory felt like a coming of age, a confirmation of their pedigree and the evidence of direction as they defended with diligence and countered with devastation.

The squad is evidently right behind Martinez and perhaps they know this is the group’s last chance of major success. But the Catalan will need to hatchet another devilish plan to exploit any French weakness.

There will never be a better chance for this set of players to finally deliver on their promise. They have never been bettered prepared for it, as well.

IS THERE A BALLON D’OR BATTLE?

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It’s not really necessary to bring the Ballon d’Or debate into a clash of this significance, but you still can’t shake the conversation with four contenders taking to the field on Tuesday.

For Belgium, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are up for examination while Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann occupy France’s candidacies.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have effectively come to a mutual understanding they will relinquish their decade-long vice grip on the position of world’s best player and with Neymar’s reputation sliding, the role is open for applicants.

A legitimate resume, though, will require at least a place in the World Cup final with the experience of a standout performance in either the semi-final or the showpiece.

But all four have the capability to add gravitas to their claim. De Bruyne is perhaps the best counter-attacking weapon in the world right now, displaying the right touch, turn, awareness, pass and shot in Russia.

He could, though, lose out to team-mate Hazard, which seems incredulous given De Bruyne was beaten to the player of the season in England by Mohamed Salah.

However, there is a sense we’re entering the Hazard era because the Chelsea star has been a man on a mission. Aside from Messi, he’s the best dribbler in world football – his 23 completed in Russia is joint highest with the Argentine genius.

Then there is Mbappe who knows a similar display to that of his Argentina annihilation will thrust him to the front of the queue, while Griezmann has been a picture of consistency for club and country.

The team obviously comes first with the World Cup final a priority but individual honours are in the mix for sure.

WHICH WEAKNESS IS WEAKER?

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France and Belgium have both shown areas of weakness in the tournament and it could be a case of which is exploited better. Deschamps will be aware of Belgium’s frailty at the back, especially when faced with pace.

The loss of wing-back Thomas Meunier to suspension can not be underplayed because his ability to operate up and down the right flank is absolutely pivotal.

Nacer Chadli was excellent against Brazil but will be swapped out onto the right, meaning Yannick Carrasco is brought back in on the left. The latter has looked lost, marooned in the middle of an awkward space between attacking and defending, at times doing neither.

Mbappe will have more room to move than he did against Uruguay and as we saw against Argentina what he can produce when given the type of space which is likely to be vacated.

But France have yet to turn a deeper shade of bleu and still look like they are playing within themselves. If they fail to raise the intensity, Belgium have the firepower to light them up.

Ultimately, it’s a contest of counter-attacks so it’s a case of which flaw will raise its head first.

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England's World Cup 2018 win could be bigger than 1966, says Gareth Southgate

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Gareth Southgate and England are one win away from the World Cup final.

Gareth Southgate believes England could get an even bigger and crazier reception for winning the World Cup than the heroes of 1966.

Fantasy is edging closer to reality in Russia as the Three Lions continue their charge towards Sunday’s final, with Croatia all that stands between them and a shot at history.

England’s stars would become immortal like Sir Alf Ramsey’s stars of 1966 and Southgate believes lifting the World Cup might be even bigger in this modern world of social media and instant connectivity.

“We’ve talked, touched briefly, certainly, on the team which won,” the England manager said. “How they’re still held and revered. At the beginning of working together with the lads and trying to sell them the vision of what’s possible, what we’re looking to achieve in the long-term.

“We also feel we’ve had events on when we’ve been in camp when some of those guys have been in, when the road was named at St George’s (Park) after Sir Alf.

“I’ve met quite a few of those players and we know exactly how they’re held and perhaps in the modern era that would be even crazier, social media and everything else, the global thing is so much bigger.”

Southgate saw the excitement and expectation that comes with reaching a semi-final during his playing days when he was part of the squad that reached the final four at Euro 96.

That tournament ended in despair for the defender after missing the crucial penalty in the shootout, so perhaps it is little wonder that the level-headed manager and “bloody proud” Englishman has got lost in some of the celebrations in Russia.

“Sadly I’ve been guilty of that as a player at my clubs,” Southgate said.

“And there’s the emotion and also the fans have paid a lot, come a long way and to be able to connect with them.

“I’d love to be able to do it with however many millions who are watching at home but the supporters who are here, they’re singing and I know what they’ve been through and I met lots of them before we came.

“We had events where I met a lot of them, they told me their stories and how many years they’ve been travelling, watching England and what it means to them.

“I only played for three clubs, I have a real affinity with all three, but England has been the biggest part of my life really.

“To be able to manage the team to this point, having played in a semi-final as well is really, really special.”

Now it is about striking a balance between cherishing the moment and keeping even-tempered as England prepare for their first World Cup semi-final since 1990.

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Southgate is more interested in kicking on than wondering if they would get the kind of rapturous reception that greeted Sir Bobby Robson’s men 28 years ago, although that summer left a lasting impact on him.

“I watched it with some mates, at a mate’s house,” he said. “Like I did with most rounds, with a curry and a beer.

“I was still living in Crawley, at my parents’, I was a young pro at Palace. I would have been going back into pre-season by the end of it.

“It was a brilliant tournament, fantastic memories of the whole tournament, I remember videoing every game to watch back.

“I videoed it to look at the players, the matches and I guess as a young player you wanted to see the best players, the level they were playing and see what you could learn from it.”

Preparation for Croatia is minimal given the turnaround as recovery becomes paramount, with players balancing switching off and refocusing in remote Repino.

“They’ve been through a lot,” Southgate added. “More the other night coming into Saturday.

“But of course you get an accumulation of fatigue, through a tournament that’s why we took the decision we did against Belgium more than anything.

“So we’ll just have to assess people as we go. Hendo (Jordan Henderson) was another one who was feeling tightness in his hamstring, which was why we made the change. We’ll just have to assess the bodies.”

The Football Association confirmed on Sunday evening that England would be wearing an all-white kit in Wednesday’s match.

Provided by Press Association Sport

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England mastermind Gareth Southgate drawing inspiration from NBA and NFL

Jay Asser 9/07/2018
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Gareth Southgate has led England to the semi-finals of the World Cup.

The best coaches in the world often have the success they do, not because of what they know, but because of their ability to recognise what they don’t.

That seems to apply to Gareth Southgate, who has England in the semi-finals of the World Cup in part because of his willingness to think outside the box.

Southgate hasn’t just gone outside the box though – he’s gone outside his sport.

If you’ve been paying attention to the Three Lions’ gripping campaign in Russia, you’ve noticed how they’ve managed to turn set-pieces, a previous crippling weakness, into a strength. That hasn’t been by accident.

Many of England’s finishes on the end of set pieces have been the result of picks, or screens, of all varieties. Whether it’s been a single player occupying a team-mate’s defender, or multiple players springing free the target of a cross, Southgate has constructed a number of choreographed plays that take inspiration from the NBA and NFL.

Southgate has attended NBA and NFL games over the years, including the past two Super Bowls, and has spoken to coaches in both sports to get a better idea of how to create and operate in space.

It’s not a one-to-one comparison, of course. There are a total of 10 players on the court at any given time in basketball, compared to attacking teams in football having around eight players near the box during a close-range free-kick or corner. While there’s much more room to work in on a field than on a court, the amount of bodies in front of goal makes it a congested affair. American football is comparable in terms of players on the field, but especially on passing plays, the spacing isn’t nearly as tight as it is during set-pieces in football.

That means Southgate has had to take principles from those sports and adapt them for his side. It’s not as if it’s the first time a football coach has recognised the value of borrowing concepts from other team sports – Pep Guardiola’s interest in the NBA is well known – but the 47-year-old Southgate, who is in the midst of his first major gig, deserves credit for bucking the conventional approach despite not having the cache that other managers do.

And the results speak for themselves. After not scoring once on 72 corners during the 2012 and 2016 European Championship, as well as the 2014 World Cup, England have banged in four goals off 29 corner attempts at this tournament. They’ve also found the back of the net once from a free kick.

If England go on to win the whole thing, Southgate will rightly be lionised. But even if it doesn’t, in fact, ‘come home’, it shouldn’t be forgotten how Southgate’s against-the-grain tactics have jolted England’s international hopes and laid the groundwork for what could be a bright coaching career.

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