Star-studded semifinal will be a tactical test for France and Belgium

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Brazil’s Neymar, center, is challenged by Belgium’s Thomas Meunier, left, during the quarterfinal match between Brazil and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kazan Arena, in Kazan, Russia, Friday, July 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Off the pitch, France and Belgium share a border as well as many cultural and historical ties. On the pitch, both sides possess a wealth of world-class talent and have been among the most entertaining teams to watch at the World Cup. For all those similarities, it may turn out to be a tactical chess match between the two managers when the nations collide in the World Cup semifinals tomorrow at 2 p.m. on FOX43.

Belgium’s often-criticized coach Roberto Martinez has silenced his doubters in the knockout rounds of the tournament. Down by two goals in the Round of 16 against Japan, he made two second-half substitutions and both players went on to score.

Martinez followed that up with a perfect game plan against Brazil. He moved his best creator, Kevin De Bruyne, further forward and De Bruyne rewarded him with a spectacular goal. He chose to start the controversial Marouane Fellaini in central midfield, and Fellaini did a fantastic job frustrating Brazil with his physicality.

But the true genius of Martinez’s tactics was in the fluidity of the formation. It was listed as a 3-4-3 on the team sheet, and that’s how it looked when Belgium had the ball. Nacer Chadli and Thomas Meunier had license to get forward on either flank and provide width for the attacks, giving the front three freedom to roam and interchange. With the reluctance of Neymar and Marcelo to stay committed defensively on Brazil’s left side, Meunier was able to get into threatening positions on multiple occasions.

Whenever Brazil took possession, Belgium would quickly revert to a back four, with Jan Vertonghen pushing out to play left back and Meunier dropping to the right side of the defense. Meunier is relatively unknown on a team full of flashy Premier League stars, but Belgium would not be in the semifinals without him. However, he is suspended for this match on yellow card accumulation, which could prove a critical loss for the Belgians.

Martinez has to go back to the drawing board for this matchup. France present a totally different challenge than Brazil. Instead of attacking with pace down the wings, French manager Didier Deschamps likes to build methodically through the middle. Les Bleus play with a true hold-up forward in Olivier Giroud, who is more dangerous off the ball than on it.

Deschamps has coached his team to carefully pick their moments to go forward. Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann wait for Giroud to occupy defenders and open up space for them to speed in to. This is incredibly difficult to stop, as France can transition from innocuous passing in the midfield to slicing in behind the defense before the opposition can react.

The central midfield partnership between N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba has been vital for France. Kanté is one of the world’s best ball winners, and Pogba’s silky stride and composure in possession make him the perfect player for Kanté to pass to after forcing a turnover.

With so much attacking quality on the field, both goalkeepers should be kept busy. France’s Hugo Lloris and Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois are having excellent tournaments and will be called upon to make saves in big moments. Neither can afford an error at this stage.

Finally, an interesting storyline to watch for is the impact of Thierry Henry, who was France’s all-time greatest goal scorer during his playing career but is now an assistant coach for Belgium.

Both teams are solid, versatile and balanced, which makes this match tough to predict. But the loss of Meunier is quite damaging to Belgium because it limits Martinez’s ability to play the way he prefers. He may have to scrap his beloved “back three with wing backs” approach in favor of a traditional back four, giving France’s patient attack the edge if they can figure out how to exploit it.

Prediction: France, 3-2

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