2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview — Newcastle United vs. Tottenham Hotspur

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

With three straight top-three finishes, a new stadium, and their star player signed to a new long-term contract, the future is bright at Tottenham Hotspur.

Yet a lack of reinforcements from the transfer window could loom large early as Spurs open their season for the second straight year at St James’ Park on Saturday against a Newcastle United squad again embroiled in self-inflicted turmoil.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Tottenham (23-8-7 in 2017-18) had 12 players take part in the World Cup this summer, third-most in the top flight behind Manchester City (16) and Chelsea (14). Three Lilywhites – Kieran Trippier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane – were full-time starters for England while Eric Dier and Danny Rose made multiple starts as they reached the semifinals.

Additionally, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris backstopped France to their second World Cup title while centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen along with midfielder Mousa Dembele claimed third place with Belgium, who beat England twice. Christian Eriksen (Denmark) and Davinson Sanchez (Colombia) both progressed to the round of 16, with Sanchez losing to his English teammates.

Heung-min Son was the only Spurs player not to reach the knockout round, but his South Korea side sprung one of the biggest upsets in Russia by defeating 2014 champion Germany.

All these players are just returning to camp and coupled with dual-track responsibilities domestically and in Champions League, chairman Daniel Levy was curiously inactive as Spurs made zero personnel moves coming or going in the summer window. Levy made a late charge at Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish but was rebuffed by the Championship side as his £25 million offer was deemed insufficient by new ownership.

Levy, however, blew apart his carefully built wage scale for Kane, the Golden Boot winner in Russia with six goals as he signed a new six-year deal in June worth a reported £90 million only 11 months after putting pen to paper on his previous contract.

This new deal, worth £200,000 per week, recognizes the value of the 25-year-old striker who scored 79 goals in the last two seasons in all competitions, narrowly missed winning a third straight Premier League Golden Boot last spring, and is the face of English football as talisman of the Three Lions.

The other big contract was signing manager Mauricio Pochettino to a five-year extension worth over £40 million through 2023 in May, tying together the fates of star player and gaffer.

“Daniel and I have spoken at length about our aspirations for this football club,” Pochettino said at the time of his signing. “We both share the same philosophies to achieve long-term, sustainable success. This is a special club – we always strive to be creative in the way we work both on and off the pitch and will continue to stick to our principles in order to achieve the success this club deserves.”

Kane’s new deal raised eyebrows among his teammates, many of whom experienced difficult negotiations with Levy. Alderweireld was hoping Manchester United would pry him from White Hart Lane, and Rose expressed his desire last season to find his market value with his next deal at Spurs or elsewhere.

On the pitch, the 4-2-3-1 Pochettino prefers should see little change from last season, though Sanchez now occupies the centre back spot Alderweireld once held. Dier may have supplanted Victor Wanyama as a midfield partner with Dembele, and the attacking quartet of Kane, Alli, Eriksen and Son remains intact.

A higher-up not spending money is nothing new for Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez, who has seemingly been at odds with club owner Mike Ashley since taking over the club in 2016. The Spaniard did yeoman’s work last season with what was essentially the same side that won promotion from the Championship in 2017 as the Magpies (12-8-18) finished 10th mainly on player graft and coaching guile – their 39 goals were second-fewest among top-10 clubs.

This summer, the soap opera renewed as Ashley again promised Benitez he would open the purse strings and never fully delivered. This created fresh enmity between owner and supporters, the latter of whom share a two-way street of adoration with Benitez and fearful he will quit St James’ Park after one empty promise too many.

The Toons made targeted moves this summer – centre back Fabian Schar, defensive midfielder Ki Sung-yueng and forward Yoshinori Muto all signed for a combined total of less than £13 million – and Ashley kept a hawk’s eye on the balance sheet as Newcastle off-loaded striker Aleksander Mitrovic to Fulham for £22 million.

Newcastle secured winger Kenedy on loan from Chelsea for a full season, and Benitez will work on Salomon Rondon as a reclamation project after being loaned from West Bromwich Albion in exchange for Dwight Gayle. The Magpies also signed keeper Martin Dubravka on a permanent deal after he arrived in January from Sparta Prague. Right before Thursday’s deadline, they added defender Federico Fernandez from Swansea City.

While friction between Benitez and Ashley is nothing new, the same holds true for players and owner. They boycotted “walk-up” media duties for broadcasters for one day due to a row over bonus payments Ashley promised from both the FA Cup and last season’s finish. It was resolved Wednesday, and captain Jamaal Lascelles is looking forward to leaving all the distractions behind.

“We’ve managed to sort the off-field stuff; now that’s out of the way, we don’t have any reason why we can’t go out and put on a good performance,” he told Newcastle’s official website. “Everybody looks sharp, we’re training hard and we’ve all got our heads in the right place.”

Benitez is counting on a standout season from midfielder Johnjo Shelvey, one of the league’s most creative yet mercurial playmakers. The 26-year-old nearly made England’s World Cup squad after heeding his manager’s call to be more under control – Shelvey was not disciplined the final 15 matches after being ejected twice in the first 13.

One of those red cards came in last season’s opener when he needlessly stamped on Alli’s ankle in the 48th minute and swung the match in Spurs’ favour. Alli would get the last laugh with the first goal just after the hour and Ben Davies added a second nine minutes later for a 2-0 win.

Tottenham did the double over Newcastle last season and have won three of their last four at St James’ Park.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Spurs are an even money favorite while a draw has 12/5 odds and a Newcastle victory has 14/5 odds. Tottenham and under 2.5 goals has a 17/5 return while the same over/under with a Newcastle victory returns 13/2 odds.

PREDICTION

There are some managers who know how to steal points in various places, and despite all the chaos surrounding Newcastle — even if the bonus payment is settled and even if Ashley is done spending his money on a new investment — this feels like an opportunity where Benitez’s shrewdness can pay off with three early points for Newcastle.

Shelvey is not going to make the same mistake he did last year and get sent off, which will be a huge plus for the Toons. Additionally, the ICC tour did not give Tottenham any benefits aside from giving most of the fringe side substantial playing time in contrast to Newcastle, which has spent the preseason drilling towards this match.

While the Magpies have not recorded a clean sheet at home versus Spurs since 2003, 13 matches ago, there is a sense they can pull that off here with a disciplined effort. I can’t give a reason or a goal-scorer for Newcastle, but just simply offer a hunch they will open the season with a victory by catching Spurs off-balance.

PREDICTION: NEWCASTLE UNITED 1, TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 0

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Tottenham Hotspur (August 4)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 18th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page.)

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR LILYWHITES

Manager: Mauricio Pochettino (Hire Date: May 27, 2014)
Tenure Length: 3rd/20 in Premier League and 8th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 23-8-7, 77 points, 3rd in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 74
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-36
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 41 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1978
Last Relegation: 
1977 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 (Juventus)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Fourth-round loss (West Ham United)
2017-18 FA Cup: Fourth-round loss (Manchester United)

2017/18 IN REVIEW

With renovations to expand White Hart Lane in full swing, Tottenham Hotspur used Wembley as its home pitch for the entire 2017-18 campaign. The Spurs started somewhat slowly at their new digs after opening the season with a 2-0 win at 10-man Newcastle United, losing to Chelsea in a London derby and drawing Burnley.

Mauricio Pochettino’s men righted the ship with a 3-0 romp at Everton as Kane had a brace to trigger a 10-match unbeaten run (8-2-0) that included wins in their first two Champions League matches and a well-earned 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu in a toe-to-toe encounter versus two-time holders Real Madrid. That match announced Spurs as a team to be reckoned with on the continent. Tottenham further burnished its credentials with a 4-1 pole-axing of Liverpool straightaway following that draw to solidify a hold on third in the table.

A surprising Carabao Cup exit at the hands of West Ham United followed, as did a 1-0 loss at Old Trafford to Manchester United, but Spurs hit a stunning high in the immediate match after, thrashing Real Madrid 3-1 to qualify for the knockout round of the Champions League with two matches to spare. A brace by Dele Alli on either side of halftime before a goal by Christian Eriksen sent Wembley into raptures, with command performances by Alli, Kane and Kieran Trippier earning deserved plaudits from supporters and pundits alike.

The easy motivation of Tuesday and Wednesday nights, though, gave away to patchy play on the weekends. Spurs were overrun 2-0 at Arsenal in the first north London derby, and a 1-1-3 stretch in league play could be overlooked when a win at APOEL confirmed Champions League group honours in early December.

A pair of victories over Stoke City and Brighton and Hove Albion followed, but Spurs took a needed dose of humility in a 4-1 hiding administered by Manchester City at the Etihad. For all of Alli’s otherworldly talent, his mercurial side got the better of him, and a stamp on Kevin De Bruyne with the game in the balance at 1-0 to the host enraged the usually placid Belgium international to the point he unleashed his wrath on all of Tottenham.

It was a lesson well-learned as Pochettino’s team would go 17 unbeaten (11-6-0) across all competitions after that defeat. The young London side drew battle-tested Juventus in the round of 16 for the Champions League, and after a dreadful start in which Spurs fell behind two before the clock had reached 10 minutes, they showed their mettle in Turin by fighting back for a draw. They also had the precious advantage of two away goals in their pocket for the return encounter courtesy Kane in the first half and Eriksen in the second.

There was a surprising FA Cup draw at Rochdale, forcing a replay that was part of three wins on the bounce before the rematch versus the Italian powerhouse. But youth would not be served in Wembley as a tactical switch on the hour by Max Allegri caught Spurs out, and goals by Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala less than three minutes apart powered Juventus to a 2-1 victory in the match and 4-3 on aggregate.

Tottenham, though, revealed plenty of character with four wins on the trot — all on the road — highlighted by its first league win at Stamford Bridge since 1990 with a deserved 3-1 victory on April 1 in which Alli had a brace in a four-minute span of the second half.

Spurs were swept up in Manchester City’s relentless march to the Premier League title, this time losing 3-1 in the home encounter. That ended a seven-match winning streak in league play and started a three-match blip in which they were also ousted from the FA Cup in the semifinals against Manchester United despite it being a “home” match at Wembley.

While Kane missed nearly three weeks with an ankle injury, he made it a point to return as soon as he felt himself fit to play, which also may have been too quick a return. Still, the Spurs forward reached 30 Premier League goals for the first time in his career by recording a brace in the season finale versus Leicester City that also pushed him over the 40-goal plateau in all competitions. Fourteen of Kane’s 41 goals were match-winners, an impressive rate considering the Spurs won 33 gams across all competitions.

Kane finished second to Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah in his bid to win a third consecutive Golden Boot in the Premier League, but he would go on to capture the World Cup version for England with six goals in Russia in leading the Three Lions to their first semifinal appearance since 1990.

Overshadowed by Kane’s season-long magnificence and Alli’s burgeoning stardom was Heung-Min Son finishing second on Tottenham with 18 goals in all competitions. He also had nine assists while playing nearly 400 fewer minutes than Alli, who still had an impressive season with 14 goals and 14 assists. Eriksen also had 14 goals, with his sublime form late in the term serving as a springboard to power Denmark to the round of 16 in the World Cup.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Tottenham Hotspur Lineup.png

With the impending departure of Moussa Dembele and perhaps Toby Alderweireld, there could be some changes to Pochettino’s preferred 4-2-3-1 set-up, with Davies continuing to serve as left back and Dier stepping into the defensive midfield role after a solid performance for England this summer. While Eriksen does more damage in a central role as a playmaker, he and Alli will likely overlap in the center while Son moves about flank to flank underneath Kane.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

It has been a rather quiet summer for Tottenham, which has largely stood pat in the transfer window. Dembele has been rumoured to be heading for the exit, while defender Alderweireld has been frustrated for months over the lack of progress regarding a new contract. Tottenham’s on-again, off-again pursuit of Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha is apparently off at the moment.

While Spurs are reportedly interested in Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, that situation is complicated by Villa having new ownership and their desire to return to the Premier League after coming up one goal short versus Fulham in last season’s playoff for the final promoted spot from the Championship.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Harry Kane (F)

Kane has become the face of both Tottenham Hotspur and England after spectacular seasons for both, and was properly rewarded this summer with a new six-year contract worth at least £62 million and worth potentially as much as £90 million if incentives are reached. He has grown in stature as a professional on and off the pitch, realising his spot in English football, and at the age of 25, is entering the prime of a career with a running partner in Alli as the linchpins of a London club set to open a new era with its shining new pitch on the hill with its revamped and more expansive White Hart Lane.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Tottenham is fifth on the tote board to win the Premier League at 16/1 odds per Ladbrokes and fifth with 4/5 odds to record a fourth consecutive top-four finish. Spurs are joint-fifth with Arsenal to be atop the table on Christmas Day at 12/1 odds and joint-fourth with Chelsea at 1/9 odds for a top-six finish.

Kane is the favorite to win the Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer with 11/4 odds, with Son a distant second among Spurs players at 80/1. In terms of top goal-scorers on the Lilywhites, Kane is an expected heavy favorite at 1/5 odds, while Eriksen, Alli and Son are all joint-second at 10/1.

Kane is also currently running third to be PFA Player of the Year at 10/1 odds, and Eriksen is joint-eighth at 20/1 and Alli slightly further back at 25/1.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 11 — Newcastle United (10th) A
Aug. 18 — Fulham (N/A) H
Aug. 27 — Manchester United (2nd) A
Sept. 2 — Watford (14th) A
————–
April 20 — Manchester City (1st) A
April 27 — West Ham United (13th) H
May 4 — Bournemouth (12th) A
May 12 — Everton (8th) H

OUTLOOK

There is much to like about Tottenham Hotspur from one through 11 as constructed given it is one of the most balanced sides in the Premier League and Europe. The problem is little has been done to upgrade Nos. 12 and beyond, and in a league were the big guns are always re-loading and re-tooling to compete domestically and abroad, that is a troubling predicament.

Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has taken great pains to keep his wage structure as conservative as possible, though he recognised the obvious greatness in his midst with Kane and justly rewarded the striker with a deal that winds up creating a reported pay packet of £200,000 per match in extending him through 2024. Levy’s reported salary at £6 million per year in 2016-17 when it was revealed last spring raised some eyebrows internally among the players, almost all of whom have faced difficult negotiations with the club chairman when it came time for new contracts.

Those negotiations are why Dembele and Alderweireld are looking elsewhere, and defender Danny Rose joined that chorus last season in feeling underpaid. How Levy navigates this minefield as Tottenham chase a fourth consecutive podium finish in the Premier League will be one of the running sub-plots of the season off the pitch around White Hart Lane.

Between the nearly non-existent roster turnover in either direction and the high number of players who logged significant match time at the World Cup in Russia — Kane, Alli, Trippier, Rose, Alderweireld, Dier, Hugo Lloris, and Jan Vertonghen all participated in at least five matches for their respective countries while Eriksen and Davinson Sanchez reached the knockout rounds — Tottenham’s depth is going to be severely tested through at least the first four matches of the season ahead of the first international break.

Erik Lamela, Harry Winks and Lucas Moura will be asked to shoulder much of that playmaking burden early on, and Fernando Llorente is eager to atone for scoring just one league goal after a £15 million move from Swansea City last January.

All of the elite teams have these kind of problems, but while Spurs appear to have the same lack of depth as Manchester United when it comes to World Cup fatigue, champion Manchester City and Liverpool took steps to further re-tool their respective sides ahead of another dual-track season of domestic and Champions League responsibilities.

Pochettino is one of the best managers in the Premier League, and he knows his team inside and out. There are few worries about Spurs burning out on the pitch since he is more than capable as a man-manager, but the sacrifices he will have to make in the early part of the season likely will come with the unintended consequence of sacrificed points.

For a team desperate to end an 11-year drought when it comes to silverware as it moves into a new stadium, that is not an ideal situation. Tottenham, though, could be the darkhorse team in the run-in, and that match at the Etihad versus Manchester City in April could loom large for both sides in the title race.

PREDICTED FINISH

3rd place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

Breaking down the FIFA All-World Cup tournament team (July 17)

So FIFA released its World Cup team of the tournament. They broke it out in a 4-2-3-1 formation as follows:

GK — Hugo Lloris, France
LB — Ashley Young, England
CB — Dejan Lovren, Croatia
CB — Raphael Varane, France
RB — Kieran Trippier, England
MF — Luka Modric, Croatia
MF — Paulinho, Brazil
LW — Neymar, Brazil
AM — Antoine Griezmann, France
RW — Eden Hazard, Belgium
ST — Kylian Mbappe, France

Straightaway, Ashley Young is the biggest head-scratcher of this bunch, especially when comparing his play to compatriot Kieran Trippier, who may have had the best tournament of any outfield player on England’s squad.

Harry Kane also had a strong tournament and won the Golden Boot, yes, but Trippier was seemingly everywhere for the Three Lions and through no fault of his own nor lack of industry, Kane was too often starved of service as the opposition got tougher.

Young did not played poorly, but was he better than Croatia’s Ivan Strinic? No. Better than France’s Lucas Hernandez? Again, no.

That N’Golo Kante is not on this list and Paulinho is borders on ridiculous. In fact, you can make a better argument for Casemiro over Paulinho when reviewing the tape of Brazil’s loss to Belgium given how awful Casemiro’s replacement Fernandinho played in that defeat. The fact Kante reportedly played the final while suffering through a stomach bug only adds to his legend on top of the long list of accolades he has accumulated in a three-year span.

Neymar is a questionable inclusion, especially at the expense of for four-goal scorers Romelu Lukaku of Belgium or Denis Cheryshev of Russia. The latter’s goal rate of one per 76 minutes was the best of the tournament.

I have a minor quibble with Lovren because I felt there were times he got away with a foul that warranted a booking. I also think, however, there are only three central defenders you can make an argument for in replacing him — England’s John Stones, Sweden’s Andreas Granqvist and Colombia’s Yerry Mina.

 

2018 World Cup Preview Match 64 — France vs. Croatia

A man unlikely to score a goal and not playing goalkeeper could heavily sway the outcome of the World Cup final between France and Croatia on Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Take a moment to examine the credentials of N’Golo Kante, whose five-year meteoric rise from Ligue 2 and Caen could reach its apex if Les Bleus add a second title to the one they won as hosts in 1998. After helping Caen win promotion to Ligue 1 in 2014 and playing a second season there, he appeared on the radar of Leicester City and well, you know the rest.

The rags-to-riches story of the Foxes going from relegation-threatened to regality with their 2016 Premier League title. Sensing what he could do in front of a three-man backline that brought him so much acclaim at Juventus, Antonio Conte poached Kante for Chelsea, where he became the first player in Premier League history to win back-to-back titles for two different teams.

His trajectory at the international scene has been slightly uneven, with the chance of him joining Mali in 2015. Kante made his competitive debut for France at the 2016 European Championship, helping Les Bleus get to the final, where he sat unused for 120 minutes in Paris as they lost to Portugal after extra time.

Manager Didier Deschamps — himself the “water-carrier” on the 1998 team playing the same role as Kante — has not made that mistake a second time in Russia, as a win would make him the third person to win the World Cup as a player and manager alongside Franz Beckenbauer of Germany and Mario Zagallo of Brazil.

Kante has logged all 540 minutes over France’s six matches en route to its third World Cup final in 20 years and covered 62.7 kilometers of ground, 27.4 of which have come with his team not in possession.

He has won 58 balls and lost only 31, forming a lethal tandem with Blaise Matuidi in front of France’s back four as Les Bleus have recorded back-to-back clean sheets in wins over Uruguay and Belgium.

“NG is always very reserved, very calm and very timid,” France midfielder Paul Pogba said at Thursday’s press conference per Reuters. “Except when he is playing cards.

“We understand each other very well, we talk, we give each other advice. It is a very special relationship. He is just a great guy.”

Kante’s dominance allows Pogba the freedom to roam forward in attack and join stars Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud. But it was clearly apparent in France’s 1-0 win over Belgium that the Manchester United midfielder has bought into his defensive responsibilities, often backtracking into his penalty area and man-marking while helping his defenders win aerial clearances.

While Griezmann may be the string-puller on offense with three goals and two assists, Pogba is showing the two-way game Jose Mourinho was trying to coax out of him all season with United.

Though Kante is France’s immovable object of the midfield, Croatia counters with an irresistible force of its own in Luka Modric in its first World Cup final appearance. The Vatreni burst onto the international football scene in France 20 years ago, reaching the semifinals before falling to Les Bleus and claiming third place in their maiden showing.

This is the first World Cup they advanced from group play since 1998, with Modric and his teammates taking the longest road to get to Moscow. Croatia has gone to extra time in all three matches, beating Denmark and Russia via penalties before defeating England 2-1 after 120 minutes Wednesday without the stomach-churning agony of spot kicks.

At just under 63 kilometers, Modric is the only player to have covered more ground than Kante, helped by the extra 64 minutes he has been able to play because of Croatia’s three extended matches. But there is much quality as there is quantity to the midfielder’s game as he and Ivan Perisic gradually took over the semifinal match against England.

While Modric bossed the midfield, Perisic was a torment on the left side and had a massive match as he scored Croatia’s equalizer and assisted on Mario Mandzukic’s winner in the 109th minute. Modric, Perisic and Mandzukic all have two goals and an assist, and while Ivan Rakitic has scored just once in the six matches to get to the finals, the Vatreni would not be here without him since he converted both decisive penalties.

“Again there was drama, it couldn’t have been otherwise,” Perisic told FIFA’s official website after Wednesday’s win. “Three times now we’ve been a goal down and have come back, and that really says a lot about our team spirit. And that is a real feature of this generation of players. We have one more game left, and we have never been more motivated.”

The combination of the extra 90 minutes of play plus the one day less to recover could loom large in Croatia’s preparation for this match, perhaps even forcing coach Zlatko Dalic to make changes on the periphery surrounding his axis of Modric, Perisic, Rakitic and Mandzukic.

Left back Ivan Strinic has not been 100 percent the last two matches, with Josep Pivaric serving as a capable understudy versus England after a shaky performance against Russia. It is possible Andrej Kramaric gets the start over Marcelo Brozovic similar to Dalic’s XI versus Russia in which Modric lays deep in a diamond midfield.

Dalic does have options, though some changes may be out of strategic necessity due to the cumulative fatigue. Still, with so much pride from so small a nation — at just over four million people, Croatia would be the second-smallest country to win the World Cup behind only 1930 and 1934 winner Uruguay — it would also not be surprising to see him present an unchanged XI from the semifinal victory.

“We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and have character. What our players did today, the strength and stamina they’ve shown, the energy level, I wanted to make substitutions but nobody wanted to come off,” Dalic said. “We’re preparing for another daunting task but we’re ready for it. We had three times extra time, but that’s up to us. We didn’t score earlier, we can ask why didn’t we finish the job in 90 minutes.

“There will be no excuses, we should not take that path. We have to play as if this was the first game of this tournament. We are not going to fish for excuses.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE

France
June 16 — France 2, Australia 1 (Griezmann 58′ (PK), Jedinak 62′ (PK), Behich 81′ (og))
June 21 — France 1, Peru 0 (Mbappe 34′)
June 26 — France 0, Denmark 0
June 30 — France 4, Argentina 3 (Griezmann 13′ (PK), Di Maria 41′, Mercado 48′, Pavard 57′, Mbappe 64′, Mbappe 68′, Aguero 90+3′)
July 6 — France 2, Uruguay 0 (Varane 40′, Griezmann 61′)
July 10 — France 1, Belgium 0 (Umtiti 51′)

Croatia
June 16 — Croatia 2, Nigeria 0 (Etebo 32′ (og), Modric 71′ (PK))
June 21 — Croatia 3, Argentina 0 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Croatia 2, Iceland 1 (Badelj 50′, G. Sigurdsson 76′ (PK), Perisic 90′)
July 1 — Croatia 1, Denmark 1 (Jorgensen 1′, Mandzukic 4′) (Croatia wins 3-2 on PKs)
July 7 — Croatia 2, Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31′, Kramaric 39′, Vida 101′, Fernandes 115′) (Croatia wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 11 — Croatia 2, England 1 a.e.t. (Trippier 5′, Perisic 68′, Mandzukic 109′)

FORMATIONS

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it for France, which has been in a 4-2-3-1 set-up since late in its opening match against Australia and is likely to use this starting XI for the second straight match after yellow cards forced Matuidi to miss the quarters. Two of Les Bleus last three goals have come from their central defenders as Griezmann provided the passes for both Umiti’s and Rapahel Varane’s goals around his goal in the quarterfinal versus Uruguay.

While Croatia sometimes lets Modric operate as a lone midfielder in front of his back four, there is plenty of flexibility as the Real Madrid man often forms triangles with Rakitic and Perisic on the left. Sometimes Rakitic will drop back to help similar to how France delopy Matuidi and Kante, which allows Rakitic the space to pour forward and find creases in opposing defenses.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Neither team has a player ineligible for this match, though Croatia has been operating one man short since sending Nikola Kalinic home after its opening match for not entering as a substitute when Dalic asked. While Strinic has come out in each of the last two matches, it would seem difficult to believe he would make way for Pivaric at left back.

Deschamps has a full 23-man roster to utilize, with Corentin Tolisso, Ousmane Dembele, Steven N’Zonzi and Nabil Fekir has top options off the bench depending on strategy for substitutions.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France — Olivier Giroud (F)

While Giroud has failed to place any of his 10 shots on target in Russia, he has done all Deschamps has asked of him by being the target forward France needs to create space offensively. He played a higher line against Belgium, which allowed Griezmann and Mbappe to try and find space with their quickness. While many have derisively compared his contributions to Stephane Guivarc’h from the 1998 squad, Giroud likely will happily take them if it means he gets to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.

Croatia — Danjiel Subasic (GK)

His quality at stopping penalty kicks aside, Subasic did not have a match to remember against England in the semifinals. He failed to create a quality wall that led to Kieran Trippier’s goal off a free kick, failing to even locate the ball until it was right on top of him and in the upper right corner of the net. Subasic has made 12 saves in his five matches at this World Cup, and given his counterpart Hugo Lloris’ fine run of form heading into this final, the Monaco No. 1 is going to have to raise his game if Croatia is to spring a large World Cup upset.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1998 (France) SF — France 2, Croatia 1 (Suker 46′, Thuram 47′, 70′)

France did not trail at any point as host in the 1998 World Cup until Davor Suker put Croatia ahead 26 seconds after the restart, latching onto a smart chip over France’s defense by Aljosa Asanovic for his fifth goal of the tournament. Les Bleus would strike back immediately as defender Lillian Thuram dispossessed Zvonimir Boban and worked a 1-2 with Youri Djorkaeff before going across across Drazen Ladic for the equalizer.

In the 70th minute, Thuram completed his brace with an inch-perfect curling strike from 20 yards on the right, bending it inside the far post on the bounce. France held out the final 16 minutes with 10 men after defender Laurent Blanc was sent off. While Blanc did make contact with Slaven Bilic with an open hand and shove to Bilic’s chest, the Croat play-acted as if the contact was on his face, and referee Jose Manuel Garcia did not have the ability to have VAR reveal the truth.

The last meeting between the teams in a tournament setting was a 2-2 draw in group play at the 2004 European Championship. David Trezeguet gave Les Bleus a contentious draw with his equalizer on 64 minutes after it appeared he controlled the ball with his hand before scoring.

The Vatreni have never beaten France in five all-time matches, losing three and drawing two.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, France is a heavy favorite at better-than-even odds (10/11), and Croatia is a firm underdog at 18/5. The odds of the match ending in a draw and going to penalty kicks are 11/5. Oddsmakers are expecting a two-goal total as that returns 23/10 odds, closely followed by a 1-0 verdict at 5/2. A three-goal haul has 15/4 odds, and a scoreless contest checks in at 11/2.

For first goal-scorers, Griezmann and Mbappe are joint-favorites at 9/2 followed by Giroud at 11/2. Mandzukic is Croatia’s top option at 15/2 and seventh overall in the pecking order.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

Nestor Pitana opened the World Cup as the referee for the Russia-Saudi Arabia match, and the Argentine will close the tournament as the man in the middle for the final. It will be his second match involving the championship teams, having overseen Croatia’s round of 16 victory over Denmark and France’s quarterfinal win over Uruguay. Pitana also was in charge of the group stage match between Mexico and Sweden.

“We won’t change what we’ve been doing up until now,” Pitana told FIFA’s official website.  “We’ll be very focused as always, that’s what has got us here. This team have worked so hard to get where we are, we’ve managed one of the greatest achievements in the world of refereeing. And now we want to finish the job, in the best way possible.”

PREDICTION

While some people have complained that Deschamps has gone “anti-football” in stifling both Uruguay and Belgium in the last two matches, the other truth is that he has gotten his offensively gifted players to play two-way games as a checks and balances that augment the playmaking skills of Griezmann and Pogba.

Griezmann is a No. 10 without the No. 10, a shrewd player who knows where and when to pop up to receive the ball in advantageous situations. Much had been made of Pogba after an inconsistent season with United, and while he does not have a goal or an assist, he has done what Deschamps has asked of him in being a destroyer over a facilitator because Les Bleus have plenty of facilitators.

Giroud could be the X-factor in all of this. He could have done better against Belgium, most notably failing to get his feet together when Mbappe delivered a perfect cross. He knows this and the world knows this. But Deschamps is going to ride him because of how much better France’s offense flows when he’s on the pitch and also because he’s still capable of delivering on set pieces, an area Croatia has struggled in giving up goals the last two matches.

For all the talk Croatia’s players have made in insisting they will be ready for Sunday, one is allowed to wonder just how much they have left to give. Mandzukic was almost let for dead before his professional goal in which he found the half-second of time to ghost into the space England defender John Stones should have been on the winning goal.

Someone behind the big three of Modric, Perisic and Rakitic must deliver, and the most likely candidate is Ante Rebic. If he can pin Lucas Hernandez back and allow Sime Vrsaljko to get forward from right back, the Vatreni can create problems offensively.

While France has played a more offensively loaded team already in Argentina, Croatia is a far better balanced squad that can diversify its attacks narrow or wide, though it did far more damage against England when it was able to utilize the flanks.

This should be an entertaining match for purists, especially as Kante and Modric battle all over the pitch since neither will give the other any quarter or moment of respite. But between France’s quality at seemingly every position as well as the cumulative fatigue Croatia has accrued in its valiant quest to get to the final, it is difficult to see an outcome other than Les Bleus getting a second star as World Cup champions.

PREDICTION: FRANCE 2, CROATIA 0

UP NEXT

France will kickoff the new Nations League hosting Germany on Sept. 6, while Croatia’s first match in UEFA’s new set-up will be at Spain on Sept. 11.

2018 World Cup Recap Match 61 — France 1, Belgium 0 (July 10)

Samuel Umtiti’s header in the 51st minute and massive play in central defense powered France to its first World Cup final appearance in 12 years as Les Bleus stifled Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday in St. Petersburg in the first of the two semifinals.

It will be the third final for France, which won it all at home in 1998 and lost to Italy on penalties in 2006. It is also the fifth major tournament final in the last 20 years for Les Bleus, who won the 2000 European Championship and reached the final two years ago as host.

Manager Didier Deschamps moved one step closer to being the third person along with German legend Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo to win the World Cup as both player and manager, having served as the captain of the 1998 squad and overhauling a talented yet mercurial side since his appointment in 2012.

His young charges — the second-youngest of the 32 sides in Russia — have matured with each passing match, working as a cohesive unit since Deschamps’ tactical switch to introduce Olivier Giroud as a target forward and switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 formation late in France’s lethargic win over Australia to open play in Russia.

It was a crushing end for Belgium’s golden generation, which was the only team to have won all five of its matches in Russia before being denied its first World Cup final. Roberto Martinez’s team was unable to provide consistent service to striker Romelu Lukaku, as France’s central defense pairing of Umtiti and Raphael Varane did the heavy lifting but got plenty of help from everyone as stars Giroud and Paul Pogba tracked back into their own penalty area.

France awaits the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Croatia and England for Sunday’s final in Moscow and Luzhniki Stadium. Belgium will remain in St. Petersburg to face the loser of that contest Saturday for third.

Each team made one change from their quarterfinal starting lineups. Martinez continued his bold personnel and tactical approach for Belgium, introducing Moussa Dembele as his replacement for the suspended Thomas Meunier and pushing Jan Vertonghen wide left in a four-man back.

Deschamps restored Blaise Matuidi back to central midfield after he served a one-match ban for yellow cards and dropped Corentin Tolisso.

The first 10 minutes of the match played out predictably of two teams in the first of the two World Cup semifinals — cagey and conservative. Belgium had a long spell of possession in that span, kicking the ball around to see how France’s defense would stretch or, in this case, scale back into two banks.

Les Bleus, though, showed what they were capable of through the counter, with Pogba sending a through ball just beyond the haring Kylian Mbappe as Thibaut Courtois slid out to the top of the penalty area to intervene.

The first real scoring chance of the match came to Eden Hazard on the stroke of the quarter-hour when he fizzed a shot wide of the right post after a smart flick into the penalty area on the left by Kevin De Bruyne.

Matuidi arrowed a 20-yard shot right at Courtois in the 18th minute, but Belgium then started a wave of attack on France. Varane made a vital headed clearance on a cross by Hazard intended for Marouane Fellaini, flicking it just over the cross bar to concede a corner Lloris aggressively punched away.

A second corner given in similar circumstances nearly resulted in Belgium taking the lead on 22 minutes, but Lloris delivered his second world-class save in as many matches, diving at full stretch to his right to push Tottenham Hotspur club teammate Toby Alderweireld’s shot from 15 yards around the right post.

France’s central defenders remained busy, with Umtiti making a vital clearance of a low cross by De Bruyne on the left with Lukaku lurking at the far post in the 28th minute.

Giroud put a stooping header wide of the right post on 31 minutes after a cross by Benjamin Pavard. Two minutes later, Antoine Griezmann should have done better from 20 yards unchallenged to the left of the D after stepping around Axel Witsel but blazed his right-footed attempt over the bar.

Les Bleus were now in the ascendancy, with Giroud failing to find his feet to cleanly connect on a cross from Mbappe and Griezmann dragging a left-footed shot wide of the right post from 20 yards. In the 40th minute, they had their best scoring opportunity, with Mbappe slipping Pavard through on the right, but Courtois got his right foot to the sharp-angled shot and sent it wide of the left post.

Pogba drew a foul on Dembele in a dangerous area 25 yards out on the right, but Griezmann smacked his free kick into Belgium’s four-man wall.

The start of the second half resembled the first, with the Red Devils on the front foot. There was some Manchester United on Manchester United crime in the 49th minute when Pogba cleared out a looping cross intended for Fellaini in the penalty area. De Bruyne nearly picked out Lukaku, but the pass was intercepted.

Kompany did well to block Giroud’s spin-and-shoot attempt from 15 yards, but France took the lead on the corner the Belgium defender conceded on that play. Umtiti flashed to the near post, beating Fellaini and meeting Griezmann’s in-swinger from the right with a glancing header from inside the six-yard box.

It was Umtiti’s third goal in 24 international appearances and first in a competitive match. It was also Griezmann’s second assist in Russia to go with his three goals.

Les Bleus kept their foot on the accelerator as Matuidi drew a foul on Dembele just outside the left elbow of the penalty area, but Griezman’s left-footed cross went unanswered. Mbappe launched another counter down the right flank and picked out Matuidi in the middle, but his shot was blocked by Alderweireld.

France should have made it 2-0 in the 57th minute, but a last-gasp block by Dembele on a shot by Giroud from six yards after an outrageous backheel by Mbappe kept Belgium in the contest, though just barely.

Martinez’s experiment with Dembele ended on the hour as he introduced Dries Mertens and dropped De Bruyne into a playmaking pocket in the middle. Belgium created a turnover in the France final third, but Pogba flew into the area to prevent De Bruyne from getting a clean shot on a poor headed clearance attempt by Varane after Mertens sent a cross in from the right.

Nacer Chadli did well to earn a corner on the right in the 63rd minute, but his low out-swinger failed to threaten, and Hazard was forced into a professional foul on Matuidi and earned the first yellow card of the contest from referee Andres Cunha.

Mertens may have mishit a cross from the right in the 65th minute, but it caught Lloris in two minds as he was forced to punch it away. Mertens quickly sent in another effort that Fellaini headed downward from 12 yards wide of the right post as it looked like another United training ground practice drill with Pogba in coverage.

Mbappe began another counter in the 67th minute, skipping out of De Bruyne’s tackle and taking off down the right side before picking out Griezmann with a cross-pitch pass. He laid it off for Giroud, but the target striker was anything but as he went well over the bar from 20 yards.

Belgium began to feel the urgency of the moment as both Mertens and Vertonghen had crosses go begging, with Pogba eager to use his 6-foot-3 frame to help the clearing cause.

Alderweireld was booked in the 70th minute with another professional foul to blunt a France counter, with Belgium continuing to try and play narrow first before trying wide. Les Bleus were now content to sit back and soak up Belgium’s pressure, though Witsel was fortunate not to be added to the bookings list after cutting down Griezmann from behind to start the final quarter-hour.

De Bryune found a small pocket of space on a pass from Hazard, but the Man City star could not get over the ball and send his left-footed shot high and wide in the 76th minute.

Martinez made his second substitution in the 80th minute, sacrificing Fellaini for Yannick Carrasco after Pogba’s flick-on of Griezmann’s free kick went over the bar.

Cunha waved play on despite Giroud body-blocking Hazard just above the penalty area right in front of him, not even giving Belgium a play-on advantage. Hazard tried to storm into the penalty area after rounding Pogba but was taken off the ball by Varane.

The ball, though, rolled to Witsel, who lashed a slicing shot from 25 yards Lloris strongly punched clear. Play had to be stopped momentarily after Hazard and Matuidi had a crunching collision that Matuidi got the worse off as Hazard’s hips hit Matuidi’s ribs.

Deschamps finally made his first swap in the 85th minute, bringing in Steven N’Zonzi for Giroud. Matuidi never fully recovered from his collision with Hazard and signaled to come off, dropping to the pitch to make sure play was stopped before Tolisso entered in the 86th minute.

Chadli sent in a dangerous cross from the right in the 87th minute France cleared. Kante was booked for a foul on Hazard, who worked hard to draw the infraction on his Chelsea teammate. De Bruyne stood over it from 30 yards on the left and looped it into the six-yard area where it was deflected by N’Zonzi and Varane before getting cleared.

The ball recycled back to De Bruyne, whose ball over the top for Lukaku was just beyond the striker’s reach after it had cleared Umtiti. The fourth official signaled six minutes of stoppage time, which Pogba started by drawing a foul on Chadli deep in Belgium’s end.

Martinez’s final roll of the dice came with Michy Batshuayi entering for Chadli. Mbappe was given a yellow card for egregiously time-wasting. A turnover gave France a chance to kill off the match as Pogba sent a lateral pass to Griezmann, but Courtois got down quickly to smother his shot from the top of the penalty area.

Mbappe then had a chance to take a shot, but Kompany dispossessed him in a 1-on-1 situation to start another Belgium counter. A cross for Lukaku went unanswered, and Vertonghen picked up a yellow for fouling Mbappe. France continued to seal Belgium out of its final third and spent almost as much time in attack.

Courtois again kept it a one-goal game in the 96th minute, stabbing Tolisso’s right-footed shot around the right post and conceding a corner. Pogba did well to bleed the final few seconds off the match, and shortly after losing it by the flag, Cunha blew his whistle to send Les Bleus back to the World Cup final for the first time in 12 years.

2018 World Cup Semifinal Preview — France vs. Belgium (Match 61)

A spot in the World Cup final is on the line Tuesday in St. Petersburg, where France looks to advance to its third championship match at the expense of Belgium, which is trying to get there for the first time.

Les Bleus are looking to reach the final for the third time in the last seven World Cups after winning it on home soil in 1998 and losing to Italy on penalties in Germany eight years later in a game infamous for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi that resulted in his ejection in extra time.

France manager Didier Deschamps was on the 1998 squad and is looking to become the third person to win the World Cup both as a player and a manger, hoping to join a short list comprised of German great Franz Beckenbauer and Brazil’s Mario Zagallo.

Deschamps made a shrewd tactical move that helped France ease past Uruguay 2-0 in the quarterfinals, dropping Paul Pogba deeper in the midfield to have him work in tandem with N’Golo Kante without the suspended Blaise Matuidi and pushing Corentin Tolisso forward on the left.

Antoine Griezmann provided the assist on Rapahel Varane’s goal in the first half and was gifted his third goal of the tournament on a howler by Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera in the second as Les Bleus were able to focus on shutting down Luis Suarez without his injured strike partner Edinson Cavani and had a mainly comfortable match.

Keeper Hugo Lloris posted his third clean sheet of the tournament, and his diving save to palm out Martin Caceres’ downward header to preserve France’s one-goal lead late in the first half was one of the best at this World Cup. The only three goals he has allowed in the run of play came against Argentina, and the Tottenham Hotspur No. 1 had little chance of stopping any of them.

Belgium is in the semifinals for the first time in 32 years after a legacy-defining win for its golden generation — a 2-1 victory over five-time champion Brazil. The challenge for the Red Devils now is to not be content with having just one such victory while in Russia.

An own goal by Brazil’s Fernandinho and a searing world-class strike from Kevin De Bruyne in the first 31 minutes were enough to see them through, but not without a standout effort from keeper Thibaut Courtois.

Courtois finished with eight saves, none more important than the last one when he tipped Neymar’s 20-yard effort over the bar in the third minute of second-half stoppage time. The Chelsea shot-stopper had made just 10 saves in Belgium’s first four matches before being tested repeatedly by the Selecao.

Like his French counterpart, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez also made some savvy tactical and personnel decisions, opting for a 3-4-3 set up while new starters Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli made noticeable impacts after their star turns off the bench helped Belgium overcome a 2-0 deficit in the round of 16 against Japan.

Belgium, which has scored a World Cup-high 14 goals, has had nine different players score at least one. Romelu Lukaku is joint-second with Cristiano Ronaldo with four goals, while Eden Hazard — with two markers — is the only other Belgium player with more than one.

The Red Devils’ only previous semifinal appearance was a 2-0 defeat to eventual champion Argentina in Mexico City in 1986.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

France
June 16 — France 2, Australia 1 (Griezmann 58′ (PK), Jedinak 62′ (PK), Behich 81′ (og))
June 21 — France 1, Peru 0 (Mbappe 34′)
June 26 — France 0, Denmark 0
June 30 — France 4, Argentina 3 (Griezmann 13′ (PK), Di Maria 41′, Mercado 48′, Pavard 57′, Mbappe 64′, Mbappe 68′, Aguero 90+3′)
July 6 — France 2, Uruguay 0 (Varane 40′, Griezmann 61′)

Belgium
June 18 — Belgium 3, Panama 0 (Mertens 47′, Lukaku 69′, 75′)
June 23 — Belgium 5, Tunisia 2 (Hazard 6′ (PK), Lukaku 16′, Bronn 18′, Lukaku 45+3′, Hazard 51, Batshuayi 90′, Khazri 90+3′)
June 28 — Belgium 1, England 0 (Januzaj 51′)
July 2 — Belgium 3, Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48′, Inui 52′, Vertonghen 69′, Fellaini 74′, Chadli 90+4′)
July 6 — Belgium 2, Brazil 1 (Fernandinho 13′ (og), De Bruyne 31′, Augusto 76′)

FORMATIONS

Each team is expected to make one change, though Belgium’s is enforced since Thomas Meunier must serve a one-match ban for his two yellow cards accrued in the first five matches.

Matuidi is expected to be restored to France’s starting XI after serving a one-match ban for a pair of bookings. He will be flanked by Kante, and that pairing allows Pogba to move up to a more attacking role in the midfield to serve as a link with Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and target forward Olivier Giroud.

Martinez has a more challenging decision in replacing Meunier, with Dries Mertens likely the choice over Yannick Carrasco on that right flank because of his creativity and pace. If Carrasco is restored on the left side, Belgium could switch Chadli to the right and utilize a 4-4-2 formation.

Fellaini and Axel Witsel will try to be a shutdown pair in the midfield to take some of the defensive pressure off playmakers De Bruyne and Eden Hazard.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

With Matuidi back in the fold, everyone is eligible, and Les Bleus have not reported any injuries. Belgium should have everyone available save the suspended Meunier.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France – N’Golo Kante (MF)

A maestro of midfield disruption, Kante is no stranger to Belgium’s trident of offense — Hazard is his teammate at Chelsea while both Lukaku and De Bruyne represent both sides of Manchester in the Premier League. If he is unable to disrupt the trio through the middle third, the Red Devils would able to flow through the middle on their lethal counterattack. If he can, Kante becomes the originator of a transition offense that could strike quickly through Mbappe, Pogba and Griezmann.

Kante’s play harkens back to his manager’s role on the 1998 Cup-winning squad, though he is more comfortable joining the fray offensively unlike Deschamps, who perfected the role of “water-carrier” as a defensive midfielder.

Belgium – Eden Hazard (SS)

Hazard did a ton of work against Brazil and took on the forward role in the final minutes after Lukaku was subbed off, getting possession and winning fouls in Brazil’s half to chew up precious seconds of second-half stoppage time. He did miss a chance to kill off the match when he fizzed a shot wide of the right post with Lukaku wide open there, but don’t count on Hazard missing a second such chance should the opportunity present itself.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1938 (France) R/16 — France 3, Belgium 1 (Veinante 1′, Nicolas 16′, Isemborghs 38′, Nicolas 69′)
1986 (Mexico) 3rd — France 4, Belgium 2 a.e.t. (Ceulemans 11′, Ferreri 27′, Papin 43′, Claesen 73′, Genghini 104′, Amoros 111′ (PK))

Veinante’s goal is still tied for the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history as he scored 35 seconds into France’s victory in 1938. The 1986 clash for third in Mexico was the last major tournament match between the sides.

They last met in a 2015 friendly in Paris, with Belgium pulling out a 4-3 victory. Fellaini had a first-half brace and Hazard added a goal in the 54th minute to give Belgium a 4-1 lead before France got late goals from Nabil Fekir and Dimitri Payet.

This is the 74th all-time meeting between the teams, with Belgium recording 30 wins to France’s 24. The teams have played to draws on 19 occasions.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, France is a slight favorite at 7/5 odds, while Belgium is a 2/1 underdog. The odds of the match going to penalty kicks after a draw are 11/5. The odds of two total goals being scored are the front runners at 5/2, followed by three (16/5) and one (10/3).

For first goal-scorers, Lukaku and Griezmann are joint-favorites at 9/2 odds, with Mbappe right behind the pair at 5/1. Belgium reserve Michy Batshuayi is fourth at 11/2 while Giroud is 6/1 to give France a 1-0 lead with his first goal of the World Cup.

Griezmann has 6/5 odds as an any-time goal-scorer, slightly lower than Lukaku (9/5) and Mbappe (2/1).

PREDICTION

In a clash of contrasting styles, it is the side that who does not change their identity that usually emerges with the better chance of winning. While France has won its knockout-round matches in differing styles — a wide-open firewagon of a win over Argentina followed by a more composed defensive suffocation of Uruguay in the quarterfinals, it has not strayed in its overall approach.

And Les Bleus can take away lessons learned from their victory over Argentina, which shares some similarities with Belgium in terms of attacking talent and volume, though Martinez’s playmakers are better than La Albiceleste’s creative types — save Messi, of course.

The Red Devils, though, not only have talented offensive options, they have intelligent ones. De Bruyne and Hazard are masters of off-the-ball movement and able to deliver killer passes from anywhere on the pitch. While Lukaku has not scored a goal in the last two contests, he has made key contributions to two of the four goals scored through a dummy against Japan and his rumble through the midfield to set up De Bruyne’s heat-seeker versus Brazil.

France, though, also has offensive skill and nous to burn in Griezmann, Pogba, Giroud and Mbappe. With Belgium, utilizing a three-man backline, Deschamps has offensive options at his disposal in which he can deploy Giroud high in the penalty area to flick on passes that Mbappe and Griezmann can race onto, or the Chelsea striker can knock them down nearby to let the pair try and shoot the gaps on either side of Vincent Kompany.

The four defensive midfielders — Matuidi and Kante for France vs Witsel and Fellaini for Belgium — will likely decide this match. If each pair is successful in neutralizing the opposition, the contest will then come down to the proverbial moment of individual magic. If neither duo play to their capabilities, this can turn into another five or seven-goal thriller the two sides have already survived in the knockout round.

Whoever Martinez uses to take Meunier’s spot will be an early clue to how Belgium will go forward. If it is Mertens, that strikes of the same attacking philosophy that went into his side’s shape against Brazil. France’s wide backs — Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard — will not pour forward freely like Brazil’s did, but given how that allows Griezmann and Mbappe space to flitter around the final third, it also makes pulling Chadli to right back in a 4-4-2 set-up and introducing Carrasco on the left flank a logical fallback.

This should be an entertaining game, especially with that cagey duel in the midfield. There are going to be enough moments in this match where quality dictates both teams will get at least one goal. The hedge here is that France finds the space for a second and potentially a third late while Belgium doesn’t get past a second.

PREDICTION: France 3, Belgium 1

UP Next

The winner of this match will play the winner of the Croatia-England match for the World Cup trophy Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The losers of the two semifinals will play Saturday in St. Petersburg for third place.

 

 

2018 World Cup Recap Match 57 — Uruguay 0, France 2 (July 6)

The guy who likes “Taking the L” dished one out to Uruguay in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Antoine Griezmann assisted on Rapahel Varane’s goal in the first half and scored in the second as France advanced to its first World Cup semifinal in 12 years with a 2-0 victory Friday in Nizhny Novogorod.

Grizemann, whose goal celebration mimicks a dance in the wildly popular co-op computer game Fortnite, got his chance to peform the move after La Celeste goalkeeper Fernando Muslera flapped at his left-footed drive in the 61st minute, deflecting it into the net to effectively end the match.

The Atletico Madrid striker’s stutter-step approaching a free kick from the right in the 40th minute moved the Uruguay defense just enough for Varane to flash in for a glancing header that Muslera had no chance to stop from going inside the left post. It was Varane’s third international goal and first since a friendly versus Brazil in 2015.

Griezmann’s goal was his third at this World Cup and first in the run of play after converting a penalty in group play and against Argentina in the round of 16. Les Bleus are through to the semifinals for the sixth time in club history and for the first time since 2006, when they lost to Italy on penalties in the final.

Uruguay was denied its second semifinal appearance in the last three World Cups as it failed to find help for Luis Suarez without injured strike partner Edinson Cavani. La Celeste’s best scoring chances came almost straightaway after Varane’s goal, with France keeper Hugo Lloris making two quality saves on back-to-back set pieces right before halftime.

He first denied Nahitan Nandez off a corner, but his second save was one of the best at this tournament. The Tottenham Hotspur No. 1 made a full stretch to his right to palm away Martin Caceres’ downward header off a free kick, and Lloris quickly scrambled to his feet and altered Diego Godin’s path to the rebound as he blazed the ball over the bar from close range.

Without Cavani, sidelined with a calf injury, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez inserted Cristhian Stuani to partner with Suarez up front. The Girona forward, however, fluffed his lines on his first scoring opportunity in the fourth minute as he failed to cleanly connect on a cross from Diego Laxalt.

Stuani, though, was not shy about continuing the tradition of Uruguay’s physical play as he launched into a heavy challenge on France wide back Lucas Hernandez. La Celeste threatened on the first corner of the match as Godin flicked it into the mixer, but Lloris aggressively punched the ball forward from danger.

Kylian Mbappe had an unmarked header on a cross from Olivier Giroud in the 16th goal he probably wished he had volleyed since he looped it over the bar. Suarez put in a crunching shoulder on Benjamin Pavard in the 23rd minute, knocking the right back to the ground in a heap as the physical battles raged all over the pitch.

France tried to pick out Giroud on a pair of occasions, but Paul Pogba’s cross was intercepted by Muslera and a second by Pavard was just beyond the Chelsea target forward’s reach.

Hernandez picked up a professional yellow card for tugging at Nandez’s jersey shortly after the half-hour, and referee Nestor Pitana booked Rodrigo Bentancur in the 38th minute for a late challenge on Corentin Tolisso.

Muslera did well to punch a free kick from Mbappe in a dangerous low area on the right and also took out Pogba in the process in the 49th minute. Tabarez pulled an ineffective Stuani just before the hour for Maxi Gomez and also introduced Cristian Rodriguez to narrow the field for La Celeste, only for those plans to come undone by Muslera’s howler.

Rodriguez and Mbappe were booked in the 67th minute as Rodriguez’s foul on the French teen caused tempers to flare between Godin and Pogba. Les Bleus proved to be comfortable on the ball protecting the lead, seeking a third to kill off the match while not allowing themselves to be pulled out of shape to create a potential Uruguay counter.

In the final minutes, the impending defeat was too much to take for Uruguay defender and Griezmann’s club teammate Jose Maria Gimenez, who was openly in tears on the pitch as his team failed to unlock France’s effective defense and possession.