BELGIUM VS. FRANCE
Where: St. Petersburg
Time: 11 a.m. PDT.
TV: Fox, Telemundo.
The buzz: There was some concern the Belgium federation had gotten it wrong two years ago when they hired Roberto Martinez, a club coach who had only limited success in the English Premier League, to try to reignite dying embers of Belgium’s golden generation. But Martinez’s humble, quiet approach has transformed a national team that has long underachieved, taking it to the World Cup semifinals for just the second time.
After losing his first match as an international coach, Martinez hasn’t been beaten in 24 games since. And his team leads this tournament in goals (14) and is second in shots (85) and shots on target (33).
The only unbeaten, untied team in the World Cup, Belgium has scored multiple goals in four of its five games and its roster reads like an EPL all-star team, with the likes of Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne and Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku of Manchester United.
France came into this World Cup among the favorites but it needed some time to gain its footing, barely squeaking by Australia and Peru in the group stage, then rallying from a second-half deficit to eliminate Argentina in the round of 16.
But France is clicking now, having scored five times in its last 123 minutes. Teenager Kylian Mbappe scored two of those goals while Antoine Griezmann scored one and set up another. If Belgium is the more accomplished team offensively, France is better defensively. France is also more experienced at this level.
While Belgium’s last appearance in the final four of a major champion came in the 1986 World Cup semifinals, France has played in two Euro finals and two World Cup finals in the last 20 years, winning one of each. And the team in Russia is heavy with holdovers from the 2016 squad that made it to Euro final before losing to Portugal in extra time.