One of Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina have made the semi-finals of the World Cup in every competition since the tournament’s inception in 1930, so if you had backed France, Belgium, England and Croatia to make up the final four in Russia this summer, you’re either lying, or sipping champagne on a yacht off the Cote d’Azur having received your handsome pay-out.
This World Cup hasn’t disappointed fans of the beautiful game. It’s been full of shocks, surprises, upsets and memorable moments – it’s made making money a tricky prospect along the way, and I personally was made to pay for backing Brazil, Uruguay and Sweden in the quarter-finals.
But a prosperous group-stage softened such blows. We now move on to Tuesday and the fascinating battle between neighbours France and Belgium in Saint Petersburg.
Les Blues have been handed 2.56 favouritism and it’s a price I’ve wrestled with for the past 48 hours; France are the outright team to beat but have they done enough to deserve our support?
Possibly/probably not. Going forward they’ve underwhelmed considering the talent at their disposal but Didier Deschamps’ team should have the upper hand in a key area against Belgium on Tuesday night.
With the Red Devils without the suspended Thomas Meunier, the Benelux nation could be forced into a defensive reshuffled. Whether Roberto Martinez persists with a four-man defence or reverts back to a wing-back system, Belgium are noticeably weak and vulnerable on the flanks.
That’s a spot in which France tend to flourish. Kylian Mbappe will no doubt relish his role from wide right and with Antoine Griezmann hugging the left-hand touchline before cutting inside they pack a serious punch. Meanwhile, the return of Blaise Matuidi should also give Les Blues more midfield options with Paul Pogba given extra license to roam.
France must improve their offensive output – their last six shots on-target have resulted in goals and they’re generating just 1.26 Expected Goals per-game, a figure that’s far too low considering the depth of talent available to them.
However, defensively, the French give little away. Deschamps’ troops are averaging just 0.42 Expected Goals from open play against per-game and they’ve shut out three of their five opposition sides. That balance should, in theory, prove vital against a Belgium side that can look a little lopsided at times.
The Red Devils are in the semi-finals for the first time since 1986 after an enthralling encounter against Brazil. Belgium rode their luck a little and the mental gains of that result could well prove a major positive in their quest to go one step beyond the final-four.
But history suggests sides that peak for a history-altering match often regresses to the mean thereafter.
Indeed, over the past 20 years there have been 30 knockout matches where a team has triumphed over a side that started the competition as a shorter outright price – of those 30 nations, 21 (70%) were eliminated in the game thereafter, suggesting the mental comedown and emotional fatigue plays a major part.
Martinez’s men have won 19 of their 24 matches under his watch but they’ve rarely convinced as a defensive commodity despite the obvious ability in the ranks. The Belgium boss is often unfairly criticised although is craving for style and swagger could prove his undoing against Deschamps’ quest for substance.
With 1.77 available on France off a scratch 0 start on the Asian Handicap, I’m inclined to support Les Blues knowing the draw is onside. The two neighbours match up well across the park bar the full-back position and that could well give the pre-match favourites the edge in a fascinating fixture.
- France 0.0 Asian Handicap (1.77)
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