2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview — Arsenal (0-0-0) vs. Manchester City (0-0-0)

(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.)

Wenger is out, but can Emery fit in?

For the first time in 23 seasons, Arsenal will have a new manager on the touchline as Unai Emery could not have picked a more difficult opponent to make a Premier League debut against than Pep Guardiola and Manchester City as the reigning champions come to the Emirates on Sunday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The divide that roiled a fan base finally reached an anticlimactic conclusion last season as the Frenchman bid au revoir to the north London side. While Wenger won a record seven FA Cups with the Gunners (19-6-13 in 2017-18), the gradual slide that had seen them fall out of Champions League play for a second straight year and lack serious title challenges for most of the decade finally wore out supporters and the Arsenal board.

“Le Professeur” enjoyed a gracious long good-bye after a sixth-place finish – his worst in his lengthy tenure at Arsenal – and a semifinal exit in the Europa League.

Given the lack of big names in the coaching market – Tito Villanova reportedly priced himself out of a potential hiring while ex-Arsenal players-turned coaches Mikael Arteta and Patrick Vieira were considered too green – Emery seems a vanilla hire who does not address the lofty ambitions of a club who last won a title with “The Invincibles” in 2004.

Emery won three consecutive Europa League titles at Sevilla from 2014-16, but his two seasons at Paris-Saint Germain were nothing spectacular. He won the treble last season as Ligue 1 winner, but PSG were eliminated in the round of 16 in both of his Champions League campaigns – a place that does not sit well with the Arsenal fan base considering Wenger made his exit in that round in his last seven appearances.

“We need to work together and the first way to do that is by finding the performance,” Emery told supporters in his first meeting with them per The Times. “I want a team with energy and I want players to give their all on the pitch.

“I want to give them the habits that I want to see from them in each match. I want to see them demonstrate these habits in every game and give their all. … It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just a different moment for this club.”

Emery does not lack for talent and has one of the best attacks in the Premier League in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexander Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey. It will be Aubameyang’s first full season at the Emirates after coming over from Borussia Dortmund in the January window and making a huge impact with 10 goals in 13 league matches. Ramsey, though, could give way to teenager Matteo Guendozui due to a knock.

Ozil, who spent last season and summer as a lightning rod of all criticisms leveled at the club and country level following Germany’s flameout in group play at the World Cup this summer, retired from international play after a falling out with the DFB amid cries of racism regarding his Turkish heritage and is intent on taking out a lost summer on Premier League opponents.

The defence – a sore spot all of last season as Wenger vacillated between three and four-man backlines – appears set to be four under Emery, who likely will use a 4-3-3 for this match after experimenting with a 4-4-2 in preseason. Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulous will pair in central defence, though Ainsley Maitland-Niles could be the weak link in this match at left back since Nacho Monreal is out through injury.

Newcomer and Uruguay international Lucas Torreira will anchor the midfield with Ramsey while Ozil is likely to push forward in attack with the front three. There is also likely to be a new goalkeeper as summer signing Bernd Leno has seen extensive action in the preseason over incumbent Petr Cech.

While Arsenal have had a summer of upheaval, Manchester City (32-4-2) have quietly gone about their business preparing their bid to be the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won three straight Premier League titles from 2007-09.

The Citizens are better than even-money favourites to repeat after coasting to the title by 19 points over eternal rivals United. They demolished almost every single-season record in the 26-year history of the Premier League – most notably being the first 100-point top-flight team in English football history – but the anger of a Champions League quarterfinal elimination by Liverpool is all the motivation Guardiola needs.

“The best way is to think ‘What’s next,'” Guardiola told City’s official website. “Focus on what we have done in our job, the desire to improve. We are still hungry and we hold them to be better and better players. It’s not easy (to repeat) but we’re going to try. It’s unrealistic to think about it early, the best way to do it is game-by-game.”

City had 16 players at the World Cup, the most of any Premier League team, and they are at various stages of match-fit. One of those players, Sergio Aguero, is in form after bagging a brace in their 2-0 victory over Chelsea in the Community Shield last Sunday at Wembley.

One player who did not go to Russia and could factor large in this match is Riyad Mahrez. He was the lone summer signing for City, who finally pried the Algeria international from Leicester City for £60 million after a January deal fell through. He further adds to a staggering wealth of talent in attack that includes Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus.

“He’s ready,” Guardiola said after observing Mahrez throughout City’s preseason tour. “I think he understands what we’re looking for, he played completely differently at Leicester. We have to give it time.”

Guardiola could use a 4-1-4-1 formation for this game as left back Benjamin Mendy returns after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury. John Stones, who was one of England’s best players at the World Cup, is expected to pair with Aymeric Laporte in central defence in front of Ederson.

Aguero would be the lone striker up front, with De Bruyne and Silva the central midfielders while Sane and Mahrez man the flanks. Fernandinho would clean up in front of the back four as the defensive midfielder.

City won all three matches between the teams, with a 3-0 hiding in the Carabao Cup final in late February bookending their league victories. The twin 3-0 thrashings four days apart galvanised Arsenal’s board in moving Wenger to the exit, as the second defeat was in front of wide patches of empty seats at the Emirates.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester City are solid 17/20 favorites to win while Arsenal and a draw return 14/5 odds. City get a better return on investment with 21/10 odds on a win with both teams scoring a goal, and for the real daring, there are 3/1 odds for a Citizens win coupled with the over of 3.5 goals.

Aguero leads the way for first-choice goal-scorers at 10/3 odds, followed by Jesus (4/1) and Aubameyang (5/1). Sane, Sterling and Mahrez all lurk just behind the Arsenal striker at 11/2. Aguero’s brace in the Community Shield also make him an even-money bet to score during the match.

PREDICTION

It has been mainly optimistic in north London in terms of Arsenal’s preseason results. The Gunners ruthlessly walloped Emery’s old team PSG around draws against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, splitting results via penalties.

But now comes the real test, one that Emery probably would not have minded being pushed back until after the first international break to better get a sense of his team. Even an A/B mix of City players severely outclassed Chelsea in the Community Shield, and as this team likely will range closer to “A” than “B,” it could be another long night for the Gunners at the Emirates.

What will be curious to see about City is to examine “how” they will be better than last season. It may not take the form of losing only two matches in league play as they likely will finish with fewer than 100 points. Guardiola has talked little about Champions League and the motivation of crashing out to Liverpool in the quarterfinals compared to chasing history, and that choice to look forward will serve this team well.

In the end, there is likely just too much class for Arsenal to overcome this soon in the season, though they should give City some moments of bother in the final third.

PREDICTION: MANCHESTER CITY 3, ARSENAL 1

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester City (August 6)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 20th and final preview of 20 EPL teams in 20 days ahead of Friday’s league-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City. Links to previous teams’ previews can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER CITY CITIZENS

Manager: Pep Guardiola (Hire Date: July 1, 2016)
Tenure Length: 10th/20 in Premier League and 30th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 32-4-2, 100 points, 1st in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 106
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-79
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 17 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2002
Last Relegation: 
2001 (Premier League to First Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Quarterfinal loss (Liverpool)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Champions
2017-18 FA Cup: Fifth-round loss (Wigan Athletic)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester City sputtered out of the gate, having to grind out a 2-0 victory at promoted Brighton and Hove Albion to start the season and then was held to a 1-1 draw by Everton to open its home slate as it played 44 minutes down a man after Kyle Walker was given his second yellow card late in the first half.

Then came the winning. A lot of winning.

City reeled off 11 consecutive victories across all competitions with some ridiculous score lines along the way. 5-0 over Liverpool. 4-0 at Feyenoord to open Champions League play. 6-0 at Watford. 5-0 versus Crystal Palace. 7-2 over Stoke City. The Citizens trailed for all of eight minutes of the 990 during their winning streak, which finally came to the end in the Carabao Cup against Wolverhampton, which pushed them to penalties before falling.

Another eight victories followed before a 2-1 loss at Shakhtar Donetsk in a dead rubber to complete Champions League play marked City’s first loss of the 2017-18 season. The good news was that it came at the perfect time ahead of their first Manchester derby at Old Trafford, where Guardiola’s men recorded a 2-1 victory to open up an 11-point chasm between the teams after 16 matches.

City set a Premier League record with their 15th consecutive league win by thrashing Swansea City 4-0 in Wales. They would push that run to 18 matches before a scoreless draw at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve in which the flash point was a horrific challenge on Kevin De Bruyne by Palace’s Jason Puncheon in the final minutes that the Belgium international was fortunate to escape serious injury from.

The dream of matching Arsenal’s “Invincibles” would end a fortnight later at Anfield, where Liverpool ran riot for a nine-minute stretch and scored three times to take a 4-1 lead before holding out for a 4-3 victory. That would be a foreshadowing of things to come not in the Premier League race, which was being readily conceded to City despite it being only mid-January, but in Champions League.

Guardiola’s charges would resume their winning ways, reeling off four on the bounce and reaching the Carabao Cup final before a 1-1 draw at always-stubborn Burnley. Manchester City made quick work of Swiss side FC Basel in the round of 16 in Champions League play, winning 4-0 on the road in the first leg to render their 2-1 second-leg defeat moot.

In between, however, was a shocking FA Cup exit at the hands of Wigan Athletic, which brought back the nightmares of losing to a relegated Latics side in the 2013 final. Manchester City took its frustrations of that loss out on Arsenal in emphatic fashion, winning the Carabao Cup final 3-0 at Wembley before handing out another 3-0 beating at the Emirates four days later.

Now champion-elect, Manchester City drew arguably the worst of the remaining Champions League sides in Liverpool, though it was still a winnable tie. Guardiola, however, made his largest mistake of the entire season in the first leg at Anfield, inexplicably starting Ilkay Gundogan as a holding midfielder over Raheem Sterling.

Within a half-hour, Liverpool turned Anfield into the vaunted cauldron it always has been for high-pressure matches and fashioned itself a 3-0 lead. The damage done, the Reds added insult to injury by holding that lead and putting up a clean sheet to make City do the heavy lifting in the second leg.

The hangover of that loss did not carry into the second Manchester derby as City attempted to become the first team to clinch a Premier League title in their 32nd match. The chance to do it against their eternal rivals United at home was a once in a lifetime opportunity that seemed to good to pass up.

For the first half-hour, it was exactly that as Vincent Kompany and Gundogan scored six minutes apart for a two-goal lead, and City nearly ran United out of the Etihad the remainder of the first half. But just as suddenly, the match swung red. Paul Pogba scored twice in two minutes, and Chris Smalling was first to a free kick and beat Ederson and both history and a title would have to wait as United salvaged some pride with a 3-2 victory.

There was no time to wallow, though, as Liverpool was coming to the Etihad and a three-goal deficit had to be overturned. Gabriel Jesus scored in the second minute, and City just applied pressure in waves at Liverpool looking for a second to further the momentum and gain everything to play for. They thought it came when Leroy Sane scored just before halftime, but it was incorrectly chalked off for offsides.

Guardiola went ballistic in complaining to referee Mateu Lahoz, earning himself an ejection at halftime. The combination of the disallowed goal and Guardiola’s thunder and banishment sapped City, who gave up a back-breaking goal to Mohamed Salah before the hour and another to Roberto Firmino late as Liverpool advanced 5-1 on aggregate.

All that was left for City was to play for history and a re-writing of the Premier League record book. They scored 12 goals in winning their next three matches, surpassing the century mark in a 4-1 hiding of West Ham United in their 35th match.

The Premier League presentation trophy was the highlight of a scoreless draw against Huddersfield Town, which all but secured a second season in the top flight with the valuable point, and it left City needing two wins to become the first Premier League team to achieve 100 points.

The first win was a straightforward 3-1 home victory over Brighton and Hove Albion, and the second took a little work. City left it very late as Jesus’ goal in the 94th minute provided the historic 1-0 victory at Southampton that made Guardiola’s side centurions. The 32nd win established a new Premier League record for victories, bettering the mark of Tottenham’s famous 1961 side.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester City Lineup.png

The frightening realisation for the rest of the Premier League, and by extension England for domestic cups and Europe for Champions League play is Guardiola can arguably flex his side into any formation and any lineup he wants on a match-to-match basis.

For argument’s sake, the XI presented here is based on a 4-3-3. Look at the names out there. Now consider the names missing: Bernardo Silva. Aymeric Laporte. New signing Riyad Mahrez. Gundogan. Danilo. Phil Foden. Benjamin Mendy barely played last season due to a torn ACL, yet it is well known he is one of the best at his position and still was good enough to make France’s roster this summer.

A serious case can be made the weakest backup link is Claudio Bravo between the sticks.

If Guardiola opts for a three-man backline, Kompany or Stones gets sacrificed, and given how well Stones played in Russia, it would be hard to sit him even at the expense of Kompany, who himself had a solid run for Belgium when he was 100 percent. This is a team that is going to have 60 percent possession or better in all but a handful of league matches and domestic cups, and Guardiola will relish in the challenge of tinkering his team between those set-ups.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

After spending and spending and spending the past two seasons to build a team Guardiola was confident could run a two-track course between Premier League and Champions League, this summer was refined and specific: Welcome, Mahrez.

The Algeria international’s arrival from Leicester City nearly came in the January window, but the deal feel through late. Six months and £60 million later, City finally got their man — arguably one of the most creative playmakers in the Premier League and the world.

What makes the move interesting is it is entirely possible Mahrez is little more than a rotation player on both tracks except for early in the season as players recover from World Cup responsibilities and again starting in December when the fixtures come fast and heavy. Still, his quality cannot be denied in being the driving force of Leicester City’s run to the Premier League title in 2016 and quarterfinal appearance in the subsequent Champions League.

Mahrez totaled 40 goals and 29 assists in all competitions in his last three seasons with the Foxes and was one of four players to rack up at least 35 goals and 20 assists in league play in that stretch along with Dele Alli, Roberto Firmino and Alexis Sanchez.

More grating to City’s rivals is the Citizens recouped more than half of that outlay by loaning out some of their promising younger players. Third-choice keeper Angus Gunn commanded almost £15 million in going to Southampton, while defenders Pablo Maffeo and Angelino nearly matched that total between them on loans to VfB Stuttgart and PSV Eindhoven, respectively.

Veteran midfielder Yaya Toure was released, and backup keeper Joe Hart is reportedly close to finalising a move to Burnley, which is in need at the position following a long-term shoulder injury to Nick Pope.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Kevin De Bruyne (MF)

There is something about De Bruyne’s game that borders on ethereal. If it’s not the direct pass that leads to the goal, he often gets the “hockey assist” in making the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal.

Whether it is his vision to make passes few see, let alone successfully make, or his sense of timing when to take over a match in terms of trying to score, the Belgium international rightfully created a split in PFA voting last year and would have been a worthy winner had he not finished runner-up to another worthy winner in Liverpool’s Salah.

De Bruyne had a solid World Cup campaign in leading Belgium to a third-place finish in Russia, and with an embarrassment of riches around him in Aguero, Sterling, Jesus and now Mahrez, De Bruyne’s biggest threat comes in the form of being able to pop up anywhere in the opposing half of the pitch to create a scoring chance for others or fashion one for himself.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to become the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won the last of its three straight titles in 2009. The Citizens are 8/11 odds to win it all again, and there are ridiculous odds for top-four (1/20) and top-six finishes (1/500).

It is a little closer to even money Guardiola’s team will be atop the table on Christmas Day at 10/11, and for top-two finishes, City have 3/1 odds to finish 1-2 ahead of Liverpool and 9/2 with United.

Aguero is listed fifth in odds to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 8/1, with Jesus sixth at 14/1. Sane and Sterling are further long shots at 33/1. Player of the Year odds is where it gets interesting as De Bruyne is a slight favorite at 8/1, Sane fifth at 14/1 and David Silva seventh (16/1).

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 12 — Arsenal (6th) A
Aug. 19 — Huddersfield Town (16th) H
Aug. 25 — Wolverhampton (N/A) A
Sept. 1 — Newcastle United (10th) H
—————
April 20 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
April 27 — Burnley (7th) A
May 4 — Leicester City (10th) H
May 12 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A

OUTLOOK

For a team that won the Premier League by 19 points, reached 100, set all sorts of single-season records (it’s easier to just link to the Wiki page rather than add 200 superfluous words and numbers) and also registered a double by also winning the Carabao Cup, there is still unfinished business for Guardiola and Manchester City.

Some of that was self-inflicted by the Spaniard, whose decision to start Gundogan in the first leg of City’s Champions League quarterfinal at Liverpool ran counter to everything he had been building on the blue side of Manchester to that very point, and he paid for it.

Dearly.

Guardiola will not be prone to overthinking this time around, but it will also not be as easy to repeat as champions either. There is always a bizarre variable that comes off a World Cup summer, and while City have more than enough depth to rotate players to address any matchup issue Guardiola may perceive, there will be a creeping unknown of sorts until they actually play the matches and get through them.

Additionally, the primary foil in the Premier League is no longer City’s hated rivals across town, but is indeed, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. Manchester City had five meaningful losses all of last season — the Champions League ones to Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel had nothing at stake — and three of them came to Liverpool.

Further, the one victory over the Reds can be talked away as a match turned on its head when Mane got his red card and a 1-0 game turned into a 5-0 laugher. Liverpool has spent… and spent… and spent to get its team up to a point where it can at least attempt to stand with Manchester City, and it will be upon the reigning champion to knock the Reds down once more.

The success of teams hitting on the counter at the World Cup will probably result in a renewed effort to do so among clubs who play Manchester City. It is nothing new for the Citizens to face, but it will be something to watch. Guardiola loves a game of cat-and-mouse like few other managers, and with his legacy on the line as he enters his third season at the Etihad, expect a cagey and focused Spaniard on the sideline as he hunts glory and beyond.

PREDICTED FINISH

1st 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

2018 World Cup Preview Match 63 — Belgium vs. England

When Belgium and England played last month to close out Group G, there was nothing on the line. Though third place at the World Cup may feel like little more than nothing, the teams will clash Saturday in St. Petersburg to complete their respective journeys in Russia.

The golden generation of Belgium has pride on the line, looking for its best World Cup finish after losing to France in the third-place match in 1986. Roberto Martinez’s team was on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline in Tuesday’s semifinal, also against France.

The counterattack that served the Red Devils so well in their knockout victories over Japan and Brazil was completely stifled by Les Bleus. Belgium, which entered the match with a World Cup-leading 14 goals, was limited to three shots on target as Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel had the side’s best chances on either side of halftime.

Romelu Lukaku, who is tied for second in the race for the Golden Boot with four goals, was starved of service up front and neutralized by France’s central defenders. While he did have an assist against Brazil, Lukaku has furthered a dubious reputation as a flat-track bully by failing to score in all three knockout matches after bagging his braces against Panama and Tunisia in group play.

“I’m proud of the way we performed and of our World Cup,” Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne told FIFA’s official website. “France maybe played a little defensively but the beauty of football is that you can choose the way you want to play. I respect that.

“We feel we’ve given our all and we need to focus on the positives. We’ve got just one wish now: to win a sixth match in Russia so we can go away on holiday even more at peace with ourselves.”

Coach Roberto Martinez, whose tactics succeeded against Brazil, faltered against France in opting for Mousa Dembele as Belgium sorely missed suspended wing back Thomas Meunier in the semifinals. Keeper Thibaut Courtois again did well between the sticks, finishing with four saves, and has made 12 in his last two matches after making 10 in his first four contests.

Of Martinez’s first-choice XI, at least five players could be making their final World Cup appearance, most notably talisman and central defender Vincent Kompany. Alderweireld, Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Jan Vertonghen also could all be marking their international farewell with this match, though all five could also be in Martinez’s plans for the 2020 European Championship.

As Belgium begins a cycle of transition to some of its younger players to build around the axis of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, England is looking to take one last positive from an overachieving World Cup experience. The Three Lions, the second-youngest team in terms of experience in Russia, have brought a renewed sense of optimism to a fan base that had come to expect — and endure — the worst over the past 20-plus years.

Gareth Southgate’s team has an incredibly quick turnaround following its heart-breaking 2-1 defeat in extra time to Croatia on Wednesday. Kieran Trippier gave the Three Lions the lead in the fifth minute with a sumptuous free kick, but the fearlessness of youth finally gave way to the nerves of the moment.

The lack of a true playmaking midfielder doomed England, who did not have a shot on frame for 94 minutes after Trippier’s goal. There was much for the Three Lions to rue in that short time frame after the final whistle Wednesday and kickoff Saturday as both Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard spurned chances with the opportunity to double England’s lead in the first half.

Then there were the split-second moments and decisions that led to Croatia’s two goals — Kyle Walker going too low on his headed clearance that allowed Ivan Perisic to score the tying goal in the 68th minute and John Stones’ brief lapse that let Mario Mandzukic ghost behind him for the match-winner 11 minutes from time.

Still, considering the low expectations England faced considering its 2014 group play exit and embarrassing loss to Iceland two summers ago in the round of 16 in the European Championships, this stirring run to the semifinals and an opportunity to play a seventh match at the World Cup was more than anyone could have projected.

“It shows we can be up there,” Kane said. “It shows we can win knockout games, it shows we can get to the semi-finals. It’s a great foundation we have built over the last couple of years with the gaffer, and we’ve just got to carry that on. We are proud of what we’ve achieved, but we want more. We’re sad that we couldn’t give the fans here and back home a Final.

“It’s tough. We’re gutted, you know. We worked so hard. I’m sure there was stuff we could have done better, but we worked as hard as we could. It hurts, it’ll hurt for a while, but we can hold our heads up high.

While the match gives both Martinez and Southgate another chance to again use their reserves as a reward working hard at practice, one regular who wants no part of the bench is England keeper Jordan Pickford. The Everton No. 1 was one of England’s top players in the knockout matches and wants his 11th cap.

“Hopefully I will get the nod against Belgium. I’d love to be the goalkeeper of the tournament,” Pickford told The Sun. “We came to win this tournament and we can’t do that now but we want to finish third. It will be a tough test against Belgium — again.

“It will be hard to get ourselves up for it. That’s where character comes in. It’s a chance to show our togetherness. We want to finish a great tournament on a high.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE

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′)
July 10 — Belgium 0, France 1 (Umtiti 51′)

England
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
July 3 — England 1, Colombia 1 (Kane 57′ (PK), Mina 90+3′) (England wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 7 — England 2, Sweden 0 (Maguire 30′, Alli 59′)
July 11 — England 1, Croatia 2 a.e.t. (Trippier 5′, Perisic 68′, Mandzukic 109′)

FORMATIONS

It’s uncertain whether Martinez will overhaul his lineup for this match considering he already did in the group match. The hedge is he will at least give Lukaku a chance to try and catch Kane for the Golden Boot and include him in the starting XI. That leads to the belief Belgium’s primary attacking trio of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard will be out there at the start.

Meunier likely will be restored to the starting lineup since he’s the freshest player of either team after serving his yellow-card ban in the quarterfinals. It would not be surprising to see Dedryck Boyata in central defense, but the hedge is Martinez will use this match as a farewell for his stars.

Southgate will probably have a mix of his starters and substitutes, though Trippier is almost certain to miss this match after having suffered a lower-body injury in the final minutes of extra time in the loss to Croatia. It’s also possible Eric Dier could start in central midfield after Jordan Henderson ran himself into the ground in five of the six matches for the Three Lions.

Like Lukaku, there is an expectation Kane will at least be out there for the start to let him try and hunt out a seventh goal that would set an England record at a single World Cup. The one area of intrigue would be playing youngsters Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold together again like Southgate did in group play.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Meunier is available after serving his one-match ban, and while it is not definite, Trippier is likely the only person on either side who is not expected to play due to his injury. England striker Jamie Vardy was fit enough to play the final eight minutes after missing the Colombia match with a groin injury.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium — Romelu Lukaku (F)

After a frustrating match against France, Lukaku has one last chance to pip Kane for the Golden Boot. His assist against Brazil secured the Silver Boot since he is the only player among fellow four-goal scorers Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). If Lukaku fails to score in this match, France’s Antoine Griezmann could claim second with a goal since he has two assists.

England — Jordan Pickford (GK)

Pickford came to Russia with just four caps and plenty of question marks. He will leave this World Cup as a world-class keeper and full of confidence ahead of returning to Everton for the upcoming Premier League season. Only France’s Hugo Lloris has had a better overall run in the knockout stages between the sticks, and Pickford has answered the call in crucial moments time and again for the Three Lions.

The fact he wants to start this match bodes well for Southgate as Pickford wants a stranglehold on the No. 1 shirt as England begins its next cycle — the 2020 European Championships.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1954 (Switzerland) GS — England 4, Belgium 4 a.e.t. (Anoul 5′, Broadis 26′, Lofthouse 36′, Broadis 63′, Coppens 67′, Anoul 71′, Lofthouse 91′, Dickinson 94′ (og))
1990 (Italy) R/16 — England 1, Belgium 0 a.e.t. (Platt 119‘)
2018 (Russia) GS — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)

Belgium’s victory in Kaliningrad last month was just its third in 22 all-time matches (3-4-15) versus England and its first in three World Cup matches (1-1-1). The previous two World Cup matches came in 1954 and 1990 — the first being a wild 4-4 draw in group play in Switzerland in which an own goal by England’s James William Dickinson in the 94th minute was the equalizer.

The teams meet again in Italy 36 years later, with England winning 1-0 after extra time in the round of 16 as David Platt’s superb volley on a free kick from Paul Gascoigne in the 119th minute spared the Three Lions potential misery in penalties.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Belgium is a firm favorite with 23/20 odds, while England is listed as a 9/4 underdog. Bettors do not seem too keen on the match ending in a draw and going to penalties as the listed odds are 27/10.

Punters are also expecting goals in this contest as two and three-goal totals are joint-favorites at 3/1, and a four-goal outcome is listed at 4/1. For first goal-scorers, Kane nudges out Lukaku as favorite with 10/3 odds, while Lukaku is 4/1. Michy Batshuayi is third on the list at 9/2 odds while Hazard and Vardy are joint-fourth at 11/2.

PREDICTION

It’s the match nobody wants to play yet both Belgium and England will be keen on exiting Russia on an up note. It is the first rematch in a World Cup since 2002, when Brazil beat Turkey in the semifinals after doing so in group play. It is the fifth time overall since 1962, with Brazil involved in three previous instances.

Everything about predicting what could happen in this match is a crapshoot give the emotional hangover of losing a World Cup semifinal, more so for England considering the Three Lions have a shorter turnaround and had the more excruciating defeat by losing in extra time.

You expect professionalism on both sides, and with so many players familiar with one another playing in England’s Premier League, there should be enough motivation to avoid being needled on the club training grounds to put forth such an effort. In the last third-place game in 2014, host Brazil’s hangover from its 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany most certainly carried into its 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands.

Last month’s group stage closer saw 17 of the 22 starters on the bench for the opening kickoff. It would seem likely that number will be significantly less while still operating with a noticeable mix of holdovers and reserves.

At the very least, the hope is both teams pick out their star strikers to try and help their cause to win the Golden Boot. Both Kane and Lukaku were spectators in Belgium’s 1-0 victory, and while Kane may be the more tired of the pair given his 120-minute effort versus Croatia, the Three Lions talisman undoubtedly will give it his all should Southgate ask him to lead the line.

In the end, though, look for Belgium to aggressively pour forward and while England may have more opportunities to counter than it did in last month’s 1-0 loss, it may also be picked apart more by a higher-quality Red Devils side.

PREDICTION: Belgium 3, England 2

UP NEXT

England’s first Nations League match will be at home against Spain on Sept. 8, while Belgium’s first match in the new UEFA set-up will be Sept. 11 at Iceland.

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 58 — Brazil 1, Belgium 2 (July 6)

Thibaut Courtois’ fingertip save of Neymar’s curling shot in the third minute of second-half stoppage time allowed Belgium to escape Kazan with a 2-1 victory over five-time champion Brazil on Friday and advance to its first World Cup semifinals in 32 years.

The keeper was immense in the final half-hour when the Selecao had virtually one-way traffic towards Belgium’s goal as they tried to overturn a two-goal deficit in similar fashion to what the Red Devils did against Japan in the previous round.

Roberto Firmino played the ball from his left to Neymar as he came to his right, and the 20-yard effort was true and going for the upper right side, but Courtois stretched all of his 6-foot-5 frame and got his right hand to the shot and send it over the bar for a corner that failed to amount to anything.

The Chelsea No. 1 finished with eight saves, nearly doubling his total of 10 from all of his first four matches.

While Brazil would pull one back through Renato Augusto  in the 76th minute, that equalizer would never come as it joined defending champion Germany and South American archrival Argentina as teams who ran into their final demise in Kazan.

It is a legacy-defining victory for Belgium’s golden generation as it reached the final four for the first time since 1986 in Mexico and ensured an all-European final four in Russia. Belgium will next face France on Tuesday in St. Petersburg, with the winner claiming a spot in the World Cup final.

The Red Devils got an own goal from Brazil midfielder Fernandinho in the 13th minute and a world-class strike from Kevin De Bruyne in the 31st as Roberto Martinez got both his personnel and tactics right in what was viewed as the most pivotal match in Belgium’s history.

Brazil’s misery against European sides in the knockout round continued, with this elimination its fourth in as many World Cup appearances at the hands of old continent rivals since winning its most recent title in 2002. The Selecao had dropped quarterfinal matches to France (2006) and the Netherlands (2010) before their 7-1 drubbing in the semifinals by Germany at home in Belo Horizonte four years ago.

It was a match that lived up to the hype befitting two of the top three teams in the world according to FIFA’s rankings, complete with plenty of scoring chances, fancy passes, tricky dribbles and on Belgium’s end at least, strong goalkeeping.

Martinez made two changes to his starting XI, rewarding Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli for their star turns against Japan and switching to a 3-4-3 formation that pushed De Bruyne forward with Fellaini and Axel Witsel working in tandem in defensive midfield.

Both proved pivotal figures, with Chadli doing tireless work on the left side of the pitch to neutralize Fagner, while any wonder about Fellaini’s introduction to the fray was quickly answered in the seventh minute when Neymar was on the receiving end of a forearm to the back of his head as he tried to dribble away from Fellaini.

Brazil nearly scored in the eighth minute off a corner that Miranda flicked into the six-yard area, where Thiago Silva re-directed it with his thigh off the left post before Courtois grabbed the ball. Some slapstick Belgium defending in the penalty area gave the Selecao another corner in the 10th minute, and Paulinho should have done better with his unmarked volley from eight yards, which was weakly knocked forward and cleared.

The Red Devils, though, would grab the lead against the run of play through an own goal by Fernandinho, who was a poor replacement for the suspended Casemiro in front of Brazil’s back four. Vincent Kompany flashed in front of the left post to flick Chadli’s corner goal-bound, and it pinged off Fernandinho’s right shoulder and past Alisson, extending the record for own goals at this World Cup with 11.

Brazil immediately went to work in hunting an equalizer, constantly letting Neymar probe the right side of Belgium’s back line, with Thomas Meunier essentially serving as a fourth defender. Courtois punched out a dangerous cross from the right and then got down to make a save when Gabriel Jesus had the ball in a dangerous area.

Coutinho hit a hard low drive right at Courtois in the 20th minute, but Marcelo — fully healthy after dealing with back spasms the previous match — did well to break up a Belgium scoring chance in which Meunier tried to pick out Lukaku with a cross from the right after Hazard carried the ball to the top of the penalty area and slotted.

Lukaku nutmegged Miranda, but Thiago Silva sliced it out for a corner before he could get back on the ball. Courtois again got down to make another save, this time on a shot by Marcelo, and Belgium again immediately flew back on the counter, with Silva making a vital clearance of a cross by De Bruyne trying to pick out Fellaini from the left.

Both teams were leaving huge gaps of space in the midfield as the play went from one end to the other.

Brazil earned a corner kick on the half-hour when Neymar’s shot was deflected over the line but Belgium cleared the line and again launched another counterattack as Lukaku, dropping deep to be a safety valve, picked up the headed clearance from Fellaini and carried the ball through his own half, taking on and rounding Fernandinho before laying it off to De Bruyne on the right.

With Meunier outside De Bruyne, Marcelo could not commit to shutting down De Bruyne, and the Manchester City attacking midfielder unleashed a vicious low drive from 20 yards inside the left corner to make it 2-0.

Jesus could have done better with an unmarked header from 10 yards in the 36th minute as he planted Marcelo’s cross wide of the right post. Courtois punched away a deflection by Meunier after a cross by Marcelo, and then the keeper had his best save of the match to this point, parrying a curling drive by Philippe Coutinho as he tried to pick out the right corner from distance like he did versus Switzerland.

Belgium had a chance to go up three in the 41st minute when De Bruyne earned a free kick from 25 yards on the left, and he lashed a right-footed shot Alisson was forced to punch over the bar for a corner. Chadli again played it low and short from the left, and Alisson was alert to catch Kompany’s backheel flick from the six-yard box.

Tite introduced Roberto Firmino at the start of the second half, sacrificing Willian while shifting Jesus to the right.

Miranda did well to prevent Lukaku from getting a shot on target in the 49th minute, snuffing out a counter that started at the other end where Kompany dispossessed Neymar on the top right elbow of the penalty area.

Firmino didn’t get enough of his foot on a whipped-in cross by Marcelo in the 51st minute, sending it just wide of the right post. Marcelo continued attempting to corkscrew Meunier into the ground on the left, twisting and turning to find the half-foot of space needed to cross balls.

In the 53rd minute, Neymar took a dive in the penalty area trying to draw a foul on Fellaini, but referee Milorad Mazic did not issue a yellow card.

Courtois shut down Jesus on the right side in the 55th minute, but the Selecao continued to pile on the pressure — a corner here, a nutmeg by Jesus there and a poor challenge by Kompany following that nutmeg that VAR ruled was not worthy of a penalty as it backed Mazic’s call for a goal kick.

Douglas Costa entered for Jesus in the 58th minute, with Brazil continuing to pour forward in numbers and Belgium repelling at all costs. The Red Devils were showing signs of fatigue from the constant defense but not breaking as the Selecao were failing to find that final touch to ignite their comeback.

Chadli launched a counterattack in the 62nd minute, playing it laterally to De Bruyne to trigger a 3-on-2 flanked by Hazard and Lukaku. De Bruyne opted for Hazard, whose shot across goal fizzed wide of the right post with Lukaku begging near it.

Brazil again launched forward, with Courtois getting his big right hand on Douglas Costa’s cross-turned-shot, and Paulinho could not respond fast enough to poke the rebound by him in the 63rd minute.

Meunier took a professional yellow card in the 71st minute cutting down Neymar as he tried to dance through the middle of the park, eliminating himself from the semifinal with his second booking of the tournament. Costa had a go from 25 yards, but it lacked the fizz to trouble Courtois as he comfortably dove and stopped it.

Hazard was steamrolled by Fagner in the 72nd minute, causing a brief stoppage, and Augusto was Tite’s final roll of the dice as Paulinho made way. Costa ripped a shot from the right in the 75th minute Courtois parried, and Neymar’s rebound was blocked before it could get on target.

Augusto, though, would get the long-awaited breakthrough in the 76th minute, ghosting between Vertonghen and Kompany and meeting Coutinho’s cross from the left with a header from eight yards inside the right post past a diving Courtois.

The final quarter-hour was perhaps the most electric of this tournament, the partisan Selecao crowd in full throat trying to will their team to level the contest. Brazil poured forward desperate for the equalizer with Belgium showing the same urgency in racing to counter but fizzling before the final act of the move with a chance to see off the match.

Firmino performed an excellent stab and turn of the ball off a pass from Neymar in the 78th minute, going just high and wide of the upper left corner. Augusto should have leveled the match on 80 minutes, picking out the lower left corner but going agonizingly wide from the top of the penalty area with Courtois stranded and simply hoping for the best.

Martinez finally made his first switch in the 83rd minute, with Thomas Vermaelen replacing an exhausted Chadli. Brazil flubbed another counter in the 84th when Coutinho sliced wide of the right post after an excellent run down the left and layoff by Neymar.

Belgium made its second switch in the 87th minute as Lukaku made way for Youri Tielemans, with Hazard moving into the advanced role. Neymar tried to turn to the outside on Toby Alderweireld, but his first touch was too heavy.

Neymar had a penalty shout in the first minute of stoppage time after Meunier made contact with him as he tried to reach Coutinho’s ball over the top, but Mazic was unsympathetic as perhaps the exaggerations of the first four matches had cost Neymar the benefit of the doubt.

Coutinho had a shot at the top of the box blocked, and then Hazard did yeoman’s work in keeping possession in his own half and juking past two defenders into Brazil’s half before drawing a foul on Miranda to further wind down the clock.

Courtois then came up with his second great save, preserving a win and giving a talented Belgium side the legacy-defining victory it had been seeking in nearly a decade’s worth of major tournaments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 World Cup Quarterfinal Preview — Brazil vs. Belgium (Match 58)

While Belgium’s golden generation finally has a memorable World Cup victory to its credit, it also presented the Red Devils with an opportunity to record a legacy-defining one Friday when it faces five-time champion Brazil in the quarterfinals at Kazan.

Down two goals with less than a half-hour to play and seemingly out of answers against a Japan side which was equal parts opportunistic and ruthless, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez introduced Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli into the match hoping to ignite his listless club.

After an unlikely headed goal by Jan Vertonghen started the fight back, both Fellaini and Chadli put their stamps on the match over the final 20 minutes, with Fellaini heading home the equalizer on 74 minutes before Chadli calmly slotted home a cross from Thomas Meunier with the final kick of the game in the fourth minute of stoppage time as Belgium recorded a famous 3-2 victory and avoided a shock loss that would have added another chapter to the recent shortcomings of this side.

Chadli’s goal may have been the most breathtaking of the World Cup thus far given the time and circumstances of the match. It capped an end-to-end rush that started when Japan made the fateful position to put a corner kick on frame that goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois caught and quickly rolled out to Kevin De Bruyne. The Manchester City star hared through midfield and passed ahead to Meunier, whose cross was expertly dummied by Romelu Lukaku before Chadli ran onto it and scored his sixth international goal.

“You have to find solutions, you have to find reaction but what you have to find more than anything is the desire and togetherness of a group of players, that they are desperate to perform,” Martinez told The Associated Press after Belgium became the first team to rally from two goals down and win a World Cup match since West Germany did so in 1970 against England.

“I think it’s a game that when you are a little boy, you dream of being involved in a World Cup, facing Brazil in a quarterfinal,” he added, “so from our point of view we can enjoy from the first second.”

While this is Belgium’s second consecutive World Cup quarterfinal appearance, it has not reached the semifinals since a fourth-place finish in 1986 that remains its best showing. The Red Devils, though, have never beaten a South American squad in the knockout round, losing twice to Argentina and once to Brazil while failing to score in all three matches.

Brazil has endured similar shortcomings against European sides of late, with its last knockout victory over a continental side coming in 2002 when it defeated Germany to lift the Jules Rimet trophy for a fifth side. There have since been elimination losses to France and the Netherlands in the quarterfinals before the Selecao’s humbling 7-1 semifinal loss to Die Mannschaft in Belo Horizonte four years ago.

Brazil, though, is making its seventh consecutive appearance in the quarterfinals after dispatching of Mexico 2-0. Neymar opened the scoring with his second goal of the tournament and sixth career World Cup goal and all but had an official assist as his cross that was tipped by Mexico keeper Guillermo Ochoa still led to Roberto Firmino’s late goal that sealed the win.

The theatrics that come with Neymar’s breathtaking offensive skills continued in the round of 16 match as he exaggerated the impact of a stamp from Mexico’s Miguel Layun on the sidelines. Still, Neymar has drawn a staggering 23 fouls — eight more than Lionel Messi, who is second with 15 — and his teammates came to his defense.

“This is normal because he has many qualities. The players who defend him make fouls,” Thiago Silva told The42. “Because it’s always hard to defend Neymar and take the ball without making fouls.”

Silva and the Selecao’s defense has also delivered in Russia, conceding just one goal in four matches and carry a 310-minute shutout streak since allowing that goal off a set piece early in the second half of the first match against Switzerland. That has been one of the underrated aspects of Tite’s makeover of Brazil, which has conceded just six goals in 25 matches since his arrival.

Brazil, however is facing a Belgium squad that has scored a tournament-best 12 goals and will do so without defensive midfielder Casemiro, who picked up his second yellow card of the tournament versus El Tri and will serve his one-match ban in this contest.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Brazil
June 17 — Brazil 1, Switzerland 1 (Coutinho 20′, Zuber 50′)
June 22 — Brazil 2, Costa Rica 0 (Coutinho 90+1′, Neymar 90+7′)
June 27 — Brazil 2, Serbia 0 (Paulinho 36′, Thiago Silva 68′)
July 2 — Brazil 2, Mexico 0 (Neymar 51′, Firmino 88′)

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′)

FORMATIONS

The two expected changes for Brazil will be at left back, where Marcelo should return after sitting out the Mexico match due to back spasms, and central midfield, where Fernandinho is the most likely replacement for the suspended Casemiro. It is possible Danilo could return at right back, but Fagner also did not do anything to warrant being displaced in starting the last three matches.

After using a three-man back line throughout group play and again against Japan, it would seem prudent for Martinez to go to a four-man back against a team with as much firepower as Brazil. It is a seamless transition for his wide backs as Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld serve in the same capacity at Tottenham, and Dedryck Boyata acquitted himself well enough deputizing for Kompany in group play that the two should be a serviceable tandem in central defense.

The unknown variable is how Martinez will line up his midfielders and attacking wingers underneath Lukaku. It would seem likely Axel Witsel would be dropped for this match given his ineffectiveness against Japan, which opens the door for Mousa Dembele on the left side. While De Bruyne playing in front of the back four is not his best position given his playmaking skills, he is surplus to goods up front with Eden Hazard there and likely will drop into that role.

Meunier was a constant menace against Japan marauding up and down the right flank and will need to do so to prevent Marcelo from doing likewise for Brazil. Dries Mertens will have to shake off a poor performance against Japan, and his creativity could prove vital here.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Casemiro will serve his one-match suspension, and while Danilo is healthy enough to play, he has not been able to unseat Fagner. Brazil has three players — Neymar, Coutinho and Filipe Luis — one booking away in this match from being suspended for the semifinals.

While Belgium has five players with one yellow card, only three of them — De Bruyne, Meunier and Vertonghen — are in its starting XI. No one has been reported injured for the Red Devils since Kompany successfully overcame the groin injury that sidelined him the first two group matches.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil — Willian (W)

Willian had his best match of the World Cup by miles against Mexico. He assisted on Neymar’s goal and popped up everywhere as his pace gave El Tri’s back four problems throughout the second half. While he has yet to score entering his 10th career World Cup contest, the Chelsea winger must continue to stretch defenses to create the gaps Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho can exploit.

Belgium — Eden Hazard (MF)

With Casemiro’s absence from Brazil’s midfield in front of the back four, Hazard will be able to glean some of Fernandinho’s tendencies from his Manchester City teammate De Bruyne. If Demeble is introduced on the left side, look for Hazard to take on a more centrally located role in the offense in the form of a traditional No. 10 playmaker while trying to pick out Lukaku both through the air and on the ground.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

2002 (Japan/South Korea) R/16 — Brazil 2, Belgium 0 (Rivaldo 67′, Ronaldo 87‘)

The scoreline from their only previous World Cup encounter flatters Brazil because Belgium proved a worthy opponent and had a goal by Marc Wilmots in the 36th minute disallowed. Wilmots was also a handful when the Red Devils controlled the first part of the second half before Rivaldo scored on a shot that took a deflection off Daniel van Buyten.

Ronaldo added the second with three minutes remaining after Belgium had opened up trying to find a late equalizer.

This is just the fifth overall meeting between the teams, with Brazil winning friendlies in 1965 and 1988. Belgium’s lone victory came in the first match between the sides in 1963.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Brazil is a solid 11/10 favorite while Belgium is listed as a 5/2 underdog. The odds of the match ending in a draw and going to penalty kicks are 23-10. Given the offensive skills of both sides, picking zero for total goals returns 9/1 odds, while a total of two goals is the current odds-on favorite at 13/5.

Unsurprisingly, Neymar is the favorite for first goal-scorer at 7/2, while Lukaku returns 9/2 odds if he can bag his fifth goal of the World Cup to give Belgium a 1-0 lead. Neymar’s strike partners Jesus and Firmino are at 5/1, while Michy Batshuayi is the second-rated option for the Red Devils at 6/1.

PREDICTION

As much as everyone would like to see these sides go full throttle and put up 10 goals in this match in some sort of 6-4 thriller or 5-5 draw that goes to penalties and further ruins goalkeepers’ lives, let’s throw some cold water on that with a reminder there were five goals combined in the four quarterfinals in Brazil four years ago.

Martinez and Belgium have to enter this contest with some sort of pragmatic approach, which is why the switch to the four-man back line seems likely. After all, who wants Marcelo having free reign on the left side along with Neymar and Philippe Coutinho to create a triangle of terror around Alderweireld?

Make no mistake, Belgium will attack at every opportunity presented by Brazil, but it must not get sucked into leaving huge gaps of space behind when it does that like it did against Japan. Some of that was because of playing three at the back, but some of it was also because Samurai Blue used their pace to great success.

Lukaku versus Silva will be one of the best heavyweight matchups between striker and central defender at this World Cup, and while his dummy that shaped Chadli’s goal showed the big man’s nous, this match is a great opportunity for Lukaku to shed some of the flat-track bully reputation he acquired at Manchester United after failing to score against top-six opponents in the Premier League this past season.

While Neymar will undoubtedly be the recipient of multiple fouls, one gets the sense Belgium will not play as cynically on defense as previous opponents. That is partly because Belgium is not a world-class defensive side, but also in part because Belgium play with flow and have yet to muck things up while in Russia.

There are plenty of high-profile matchups throughout the pitch for this contest, and while there is no clear-cut reason to pick against Brazil and for Belgium, sometimes a team comes along at the right time to embrace its moment of destiny. And the hunch here is the Red Devils do just that.

PREDICTION: Belgium 3, Brazil 2

UP NEXT:

The winner of this match will play the winner of the France-Uruguay match in the semifinals in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.