Another day, another round, another step closer to lifting that oddly shaped gold trophy. Today, France and Belgium meet in the first semi-final. Tomorrow, Croatia and England face off in the second. Who’s going to the final? And who’s taking it all home? Jonathan Newby and Gavin Lippman are back to make the case.
Les Bleus didn’t exactly impress us in the group stages. They squeaked by Australia 2-1 with the help of the first Video Assistant Referee (VAR) review for a penalty, then secured a straightforward 1-0 win over Peru before playing out a dour 0-0 draw with Denmark. Despite such a mehhhh performance, France eked out the top spot in Group C and secured passage to the knockout rounds.
The French had so much talent across the board, but we hadn’t seen that dominant performance that you like to see from a pre-tournament favorite. Entering the next round, we were left wondering when the French team might assert themselves. It was that question that we were still asking as they were down 2-1 to Argentina after 50 minutes of their Round of 16 match.
It was at that moment when Les Bleus showed their true colors. They turned on the style, pummeling Argentina with three straight goals winning the match, 4-3. Their fourth goal was magnifique, illustrating the type of soccer that the French team can play when they are on song. In the quarterfinals, Les Bleus defeated perennial contender Uruguay with a gentleman’s 2-0. Luckily, they did not need a barrage of goals for this match as their defense kept star Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez at bay and their midfield engine N’Golo Kante snuffed out any threat of an attack from the Uruguayans.
The French have shown steel in defense and midfield, in addition to an explosive offense that can defeat teams in multiple ways. They are clearly the favorites left of the for teams vying to raise the Jules Rimet trophy.
Kylian Mbappe (F) and N’Golo Kante (MF)
Kylian Mbappe has been one of the stars of the tournament. A shoo-in for the best young player award, he has really shined for France in attack. He’s used all facets of his game: speed, technique, and intelligent runs to stretch defenses, expose, defenders and score goals. At 19, hes already drawn comparisons to legendary French striker Thierry Henry. Look for him to add to his three tournament goals in the semi-final vs. Belgium.
N’Golo Kante is a different type of player to watch. For those who only keep track of goals and highlights, Kante plays a defensive midfielder—all of the grit, none of the glory. While he is not the most physically imposing, he is one of the most dominant in his position, a middie that snuffs out any potential attack from the other team and then catalyzes the transition for the team going forward on offense. Kante was the engine behind Leicester City’s historic English Premier League title run and is now doing the same thing for Les Bleus. Keep an eye out for #13 on France as his performance will be key for France on both offense and defense.
Since the infamous Zidane headbutt in the 2006 World Cup Final, French soccer had been on somewhat of a decline. They have struggled to replace legends like Zidane, Henry, Lilian Thuram, and Marcel Desailly. Now, manager Didier Deschamps (the captain of the World Cup winning French team) has led the next golden generation to the final of the European Championships (2016) and to the semi-finals of this year’s World Cup. The French are clear favorites to win their second World Cup with a team that is equipped to dominate international soccer for years to come.
The Red Devils were the only pre-tournament favorite that looked impressive in the group stages. They started off the World Cup with two routs of Panama and Tunisia before defeating a second string England side 1-0 to win Group G. In their first three matches, the Belgians scored nine goals and only conceded two. The question with Belgium was never about their offense, but whether they could take it to the next level when it counted. In Belgium’s last two major tournament losses, they looked insipid in a 1-0 quarterfinal loss to Argentina in the 2014 World Cup, and lost to an inferior Wales side 3-1 in the 2016 European Championship. Entering the knockout rounds, we wanted to see if they could make the leap and really be a force to be reckoned with in this World Cup.
A deep 70 minutes into their Round of 16 match, Belgium were facing elimination. Down 2-0 to Japan, it was another same old Belgium knockout round performance. Then in the last 25 minutes, the Red Devils flipped a switch, scoring three unanswered goals including the game-winner in the 95th minute to beat Japan 3-2.
Belgium’s reward for their comeback was a date with a formidable Brazil. Belgium got two early goals: one from a corner kick in the 13th minute, the other from a blistering counter-attack in the 31st. In the second half, they held off a Brazilian onslaught to hang on for a 2-1 upset, and in the process, booked their place in a World Cup semi-final for the first time since 1986.
Romelu Lukaku (F)
Romelu Lukaku has been a joy to watch. While he often comes under intense criticism when playing for his club, Manchester United, Lukaku has shown the full array of his talents during this World Cup. Not only is he leading his team in goals, but he has also been a linchpin of their attack. Want proof?
Look at the final goal against Japan, as he is drawing his defender away to open up space for his teammates, then executes a sublime dummy to leave Nacer Chadli with a tap-in for the winning goal.
In the second goal against Brazil, Lukaku tracked back on defense to receive the ball, beat multiple Brazilian players, then laid it off to Kevin DeBruyne to rifle home the goal.
This tournament, Lukaku has shed the myth that he is all about “pace and power,” while missing the finesse and finishing. As the focal point of Belgium’s attack, he will need to continue to have a great tournament in order for Belgium’s historic run to continue.
Belgium has long been discussed as a country with extremely talented players who can’t pull it all together. You see many of these players starring in leagues all over the world, but this is the first time these talents have really coalesced on an international stage. Two more victories and Belgium would become only the ninth nation to win the World Cup, a crowning achievement for manager Roberto Martinez and this golden generation of Belgian players.
After facing a tough group, the Balkan footballing giants have reached the semifinals of the World Cup for the first time since 1998. In their first group stage match, they defeated Nigeria 2-0 on a first half own goal, and second half penalty kick from Captain Luka Modrić.
The second group stage match paired Croatia against Leo Messi and Argentina. After a goalless first half, Ante Rebić took advantage of a goalkeeping howler from Argentina’s Willy Caballero, to take a 1-0 lead in the 53rd minute. From then on, Croatia never looked back, tallying two more goals from Modrić in the 80th minute, followed by Ivan Rakitić’s stoppage time goal. Croatia’s demonstrable 3-0 win was one of the big surprises of the group stage round. Their final match was a 2-1 result over fan-favorite Iceland (fans are still performing the Viking chants) to finish 100 percent in the group stage play.
Croatia matched up against Denmark in the round of 16, in what started as an incredibly exciting game. Denmark’s Mathias Jorgensen scored in the first minute, with Mario Mandzukić equalizing in the 4th minute for Croatia. But from that point forward—through both halves, stoppage, and extra time—neither team could finish.
After winning on PKs, Croatia moved on to the next round where they played against the surprise team of the tournament, home team Russia. Once again, an exciting back-and-forth game went to PKs, where Croatia would ultimately move on, ending the Cinderella run of the host nation.
Luka Modrić (MF)
The captain has been influential in the midfield, dictating tempo, and providing excellent services into dangerous attacking areas for his front men.
A berth in the World Cup Final for the first time ever.
The Three Lions are in their first World Cup semi-finals since Italia 1990, led by now popular pundit and Golden Boot winner, Gary Lineker. It’s been a long time coming.
In the group stage, England defeated Tunisia 2-1 in their opening match, with Captain Harry Kane scoring the winner in stoppage time. The second match saw England run rampant over lowly CONCACAF side Panama 6-1, where Kane bagged a hat trick, John Stones scored twice, and Jesse Lingard added another.
The final group stage match paired England with fellow semifinalist Belgium… and it was an absolute snoozer. Both teams had already secured a spot in the knockout rounds, and with nothing much to play for, decided to pack it in. Belgium won 1-0 thanks to a goal by Adnan Januzaj, putting England through at the 2-spot for the group.
The round of sixteen match pitted England against South American heavyweight Colombia, where Kane scored only to have his effort cancelled out by Colombian defender Yerry Mina in stoppage time. England kept their nerve during the penalty kicks (unlike teams from the past) and advanced to the quarterfinals to play Sweden. While Sweden topped the Group of Death that included 2014 champions Germany, Mexico, and South Korea, England were in full control in a very convincing 2-0 victory. World Cup debutantes Dele Alli and Harry MaGuire scored for the Three Lions clinching their spot in the semi-finals.
Harry Kane (F)
The England captain leads the tournament with 4 goals, and has looked lethal in front of goal this entire tournament.
The first World Cup final birth since The Three Lions won it all in 1966 as the host nation. It’s been a long time coming.
So who’s going to advance to the final? Join in on the conversation with us over at @thepromptmag on Twitter.