World Cup: France-Belgium semifinal “like a derby match”, says Giroud
France and Belgium kick off an all-European semifinal match at the FIFA World Cup 2018 tonight, with plenty of inside knowledge on both sides
"There is a big rivalry between France and Belgium, it's like a derby match," said France striker Olivier Giroud ahead of Tuesday's last-four meeting in St Petersburg.
The connections between the two national team setups have become increasingly apparent in the two barren days between the last quarterfinal and the start of the last four. A photo of Belgian squad members and brothers Eden and Thorgan Hazard and their younger brother Kylian (also a professional footballer) wearing France shirts during the 1998 World Cup has done the rounds on social media and Eden, one of Belgium's key men, admitted his loyalties were once divided.
"With my brothers, we have always been more supporters of France than Belgium because we grew up with ‘98," said the Chelsea man, who hails from the French-speaking area of Belgium. "At the time, there wasn't the jersey of Belgium, that's why we wore the one of France.
"I do not want to denigrate the Belgium team of the time, there were very good players, but at that time, it was France."
World Cup winners Didier Deschamps and Thierry Henry reunited
Two other men who famously wore the shirt of Les Bleus in 1998 will be in opposite dugouts, as France boss Didier Deschamps and Thierry Henry, assistant to Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez, have the opportunity for a very public re-union, though it's unlikely they'll have much time to discuss their parts in France's only World Cup victory 20 years on.
"We played together as teammates and he was much younger and I was at the end of my career. Of course, it is a difficult situation, it really is not easy for him," said Deschamps.
"But he did know that, from the time he was joining the management team and becoming assistant to Martinez, that this could happen. On a personal level it is with great pleasure that I'm going to see him tomorrow."
Martinez' men are the only side to have won all of their games in 90 minutes in Russia and are the tournament's top scorers with 14 goals. They come in to the match on the back of an impressive, if somewhat nervy, victory over Brazil in the last round and the Spanish boss believes their preparations are starting to pay off.
"We’ve strived to be as good as we could be at international level and it’s taken us two years to get there. But there haven’t been one or two secrets to make it work, it’s been common sense," he said.
Flexibility key for both bosses, Martinez and Deschamps
As well as Eden Hazard, Belgium can call on Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne, three of a host of Premier League stars, many of whom count French squad members among their clubmates. De Bruyne's flexibility has allowed Martinez to tinker with his tactics during games and the former Everton boss knows how important the Manchester City playmaker is.
"It's essential to have a player like Kevin, that he can play different roles," Martinez said. "Apart from goalkeeper I could tell you that he could not just play, he could perform at the highest level in any position. That's the quality that he has."
France have a plenty of attacking talent too, with Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe (pictured top, left and right) particularly impressing in roles behind Giroud, who has offered his side a muscular presence they lacked when Deschamps opted for Ousmane Dembele in their unconvincing opening win over Australia.
Belgium's chances of stopping their opponents are dented by the absence of suspended right back Thomas Meunier but Deschamps believes his charges are equally capable of adapting to any situation.
"Belgium played a great game against Brazil with a specific game plan. Will they do something similar against us? Probably," he said. "I have made sure my players are prepared for any scenario at the beginning of the match and during the match if it changes."
Pavard's star on the rise
France have no such selection issues and are almost certain to stick with Stuttgart's Benjamin Pavard at right back after a string of impressive displays from the 22-year-old have made him one of the tournament's stand-out defenders. His goal against Argentina, in the 4-3 win that marked the moment France truly arrived at World Cup 2018, is one of the strongest contenders in an exceptional "Goal of the Tournament" field and he has a notable record to try and maintain.
In 29 matches for France, both in the underage sides and the seniors, Pavard has not lost a game.
"I hope that I'll stay undefeated through 31 games and that we'll lift this cup," said the defender, who has been linked with Bayern Munich in recent days.
With England or Croatia awaiting, the winner of this one will go in to Sunday's final as the favorites. With the sides difficult to separate on paper, how they handle the pressure, and perhaps those little nuggets of inside knowledge, could make all the difference.