It’s Belgium-France, then England-Croatia to determine this weekend’s championship match-up
There has always been a presumption among some of soccer’s fervent fans that national teams from South and Central America have a competitive advantage over the Europeans when it comes to the World Championship and World Cup.
And there is nothing wrong with the perception. After all, the way the sport has been played in nations like Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina has only enhanced that observation over the course of decades. Since 1930, Brazil has won the World Cup five times with Argentina and Uruguay winning twice each.
But the champions in the last three Cups have been from Europe, Italy (2006), Spain (2010) and Germany (2014). And European teams have a 100 percent chance to win a fourth straight in this quadrennial.
If you are interested in such things, France is the favorite to win at 2-1. Belgium is 11-4, England 5-2 and Croatia 4-1.
The 2018 World Cup semifinals will be played Tuesday and Wednesday and here is a look at those matches.
Tuesday: Belgium vs. France (St. Petersburg)
Separated by only 313 miles, the similarities between these two nations, certainly from a cultural standpoint, are striking. And that only lends to the intrigue of this match.
They call the Belgium squad the “Golden Generation,” an obvious reference to the confluence of top players assembled this season. And the coronation seemed apt after they dominated Brazil in the quarterfinal.
Remarkably, considering its past failures on the world stage, Belgium is considered France’s equal and that is because of their experience and fabulous group led by captain Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. But another of their top players, Thomas Meunier, will not play because of an accumulation of yellow cards.
Lukaku’s performance against Brazil was world-class; he seemed to be everywhere and capable of anything and there was nothing the opponent could to contain him. He already has four goals in the tournament.
Of course. France, currently ranked No. 7 in the world, has many players capable of doing the same thing to Belgium, ranked No. 3. And not only were the French champions in 1998, but they were finalists in 2006.
Kylian Mbappe, 19, is one of the best young players in the world and he was at his best against Argentina in the second round. But he is not alone. Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann need to be marked with just as much precision.
Belgium’s record against France in friendlies is 30-24 with 19 draws and they first played in 1904. But in tournaments, France is 5-3 with three draws. They have not met since a friendly in 2015 which Belgium won by a goal in Paris.
They have met only twice at World Cups, the last in the third-place playoff in 1986 after Argentina beat Belgium in the semifinals on two goals from Diego Maradona.
Wednesday: England vs. Croatia (Moscow)
The Croatians ended Russia fairytale run at the World Cup with a penalty kick win in the quarterfinals. But it’s been the English team’s journey that seems to have captivated many of the sport’s casual fans.
To get to the semifinals, England, which last won the World Cup in 1966, has beaten Tunisia (2-1), Panama (6-1), Columbia (penalty kicks) and Sweden (2-0), with many English celebrated by trashing an IKEA in West London. England was defeated by Belgium (1-0) in the final match of the group stage, but both teams had already advanced and were resting their stars.
England’s drought is a long one. This will be its first semifinal since 1990, when its lost to West Germany on penalty kicks.
Meanwhile, Croatia has been taken to penalty kicks in its last two wins over Demark and Russia, and since its players average 28 years (the oldest in the semifinals) there will be some question about fitness on Wednesday.
The star for Croatia thus far has been keeper Danijel Subasic, who saved his team with spectacular performances in its penalty kick victories.
The teams have played seven times since 1990. England won 4-2 at Euro 2004 in their only meeting at a major. England had won the last two matches, 4-1 and 5-1, in two World Cup qualifiers before the 2010 tournament.
England’s captain, Harry Kane, leads all scorers in this World Cup with six goals (three penalties). Croatian captain, Luka Modric, has two goals (one penalty).