WITH the World Cup reaching its final stages, Ben Levene ( @benlevene96 ) reviews each of the semi-finalists.
World Cup 2018: The Final Four
Since 1998 just one of ten World Cup semi-finals have been won by more than the single goal. As expected, they tend to be narrowly fought battles.
During that sample, six of ten games have seen under 1.5 goals. Two have ended 0-0, while three ties have gone to extra-time.
Didier Deschamps’ France find themselves labelled as tournament favourites as we head towards to the semi-finals.
Question marks have been posed at the French manager for some time. However, it’s only fair to give him credit for the way he’s adapted.
Deschamps lined up with a front-three of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele in their opening 2-1 win against Australia. Les Bleus were underwhelming on that occasion and have since opted for Griezmann and Mbappe playing off focal point Olivier Giroud.
Likewise, the selections of Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez at full-back raised eyebrows but France have comfortably allowed the fewest xG against of the remaining four-sides.
France progressed through Group C with a game to spare after they followed up the victory against Australia with a 1-0 win over Peru. That allowed Deschamps to make six-changes for the 0-0 draw with Denmark in the final group game.
The French were devastating on the counter against Argentina in the last 16 while against Uruguay in the quarter’s they progressed 2-0 winners without getting out of first gear.
A potential downfall of France is their ability to break down organised defences. Against Uruguay they didn’t create loads, in fact they lost the xG count 0.59-0.33. But if they keep restricting chances the way they have, they’ll remain notoriously difficult to beat.
Mbappe is 7/2 favourite for the Golden Ball while fellow attacker and 2016 Ballon d’Or third-place recipient, Antoine Griezman, gives France a fantastic link between midfield and attack.
Unsung hero N’Golo Kante was phenomenal against Uruguay. His dirty-work frees up the technically gifted stars around him.
The bookies suggest there is a 33% chance the French go one better than their run to the final of Euro 2016 and lift the trophy.
Belgium coming of age?
Perennial dark horses Belgium may have finally come of age.
They were on the good side of fortune in their win over Brazil. An early own-goal allowed the Red Devils to hit a rattled Brazil on the counter. But fair play to them, they put in a mature performance, with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne star performers.
Going 2-0 down to Japan in the last 16 could prove to be a significant moment in the context of Belgium’s tournament. Prior to that, results were papering over the obvious cracks in the sides structure.
Roberto Martinez has since pushed Kevin De Bruyne closer to Romelu Lukau and Eden Hazard, with Dries Mertens being sacrificed. Yannick Ferrero-Carrasco was too omitted against Brazil as Martinez reverted to a back-four. Marouane Fellaini came into midfield alongside Axel Witsel and put in his usual nuisance-like performance.
With the attacking-quality on show, if Belgium can find a way of keeping chances to a minimum at their own end, they will pose France problems.
The Three Lions arrived in Russia with an heir of quiet optimism about them. The togetherness and self-confidence within the camp was evident for all to see.
Yet scarred by previous failings, few of the English public expected quite this. This England side are different. They are likeable, void of egos, and enjoy their football.
A significant part of this run can be credited to Gareth Southgate. The England-boss has done his best to keep the players happy, and yet along the way has not been afraid to make bold, cold-hearted decisions.
England are playing with an identity and in a shrewd style that gets the best out of their pool of players.
A thrown game against Belgium aside, the Three Lions have been the best team on the park in each of their matches thus far this tournament. They go off 8/13 favourites to qualify against Croatia, and based on what we’ve seen that’s difficult to argue with.
Dalic's men can't be predicted
I’ve already used the phrase ‘perennial dark horse’, but I’d probably be forgiven for using it here again. Like Belgium, Croatia are in the midst of a golden generation, and perhaps it’s the last chance the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic will have to strut their best stuff on the big international stage.
Croatia have come through two-penalty shootouts in the space of a week. That will surely take its toll given the quick turnover of games.
Zlatko Dalic’s side only secured their place in Russia via a play-off against Greece. They finished behind Iceland in regular qualification what seems like an age ago.
Barring the impressive second 45 against Argentina, Croatia have actually been a tad underwhelming. Nigeria were terrible in the opener when Croatia ran out 2-0 victors without doing too much.
Against both Denmark and Russia in the knockout phase, Croatia have looked vulnerable. There has been little fluidity with the ball, and the strong-running of Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic has been nullified. That duo could be key against an English back-three that will hold a high line.
As was outlined by Slaven Bilic on ITV, Dalic likes to operate with a holding midfielder, usually Marcelo Brozovic, behind Rakitic and Modric when the Croats are unlikely to win the battle for possession.
When they can punish opposition however, Andrej Kramaric will join Mario Mandzukic in attack as was the case against Russia.
Croatia are difficult to assess. As we’ve already established, they have the ability to throw in a shocker, and yet with the talent within their ranks, they could knockout England and even make a mockery of the 6/1 quoted about winning the thing.