2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester United (August 5)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 19th 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.)

MANCHESTER UNITED RED DEVILS

Manager: Jose Mourinho (Hire Date: May 27, 2016)
Tenure Length: 9th/20 in Premier League and 27th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 25-6-7, 81 points, 2nd in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 68
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-40
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 44 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1975
Last Relegation: 
1974 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 (Sevilla)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss (Bristol City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Runner-up (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester United hit the ground running last season, rolling past West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City by a combined 10-0 margin as Romelu Lukaku made an instant impact with three goals in his first two matches in a United shirt. The Red Devils held out for a 2-2 draw at Stoke City, but the sprint out of the blocks resumed with six wins on the bounce — two of them to open their Champions League account.

Some of the excitement from the start was tempered when Manchester United lost influential midfielder Paul Pogba to a hamstring injury that would sideline him two months. Despite 32 goals and only three against in this 9-1-0 run to open the term, the cries of anti-football against Jose Mourinho came immediately after a lifeless 0-0 draw at Anfield against Liverpool on Oct. 14.

Mourinho set up his team pragmatically and defensively as United finished with one shot on target. Liverpool’s five shots on frame were one less than Mourinho’s side attempted all match.

The “Special One” had a flash of thunder after a 2-1 loss at promoted Huddersfield Town the following week, excoriating his team for a lack of “aggression, desire, motivation and sacrifice” despite having nearly 80 percent possession as Pogba’s absence continued to loom large. United regrouped with three wins, but another high-profile match came and went without a goal as they came up short in a 1-0 loss at his old Stamford Bridge stomping grounds.

While United never dropped below second in the table all season, it was becoming painfully clear their eternal rival Manchester City was pulling away with every match day United did not get all three points. Pogba finally returned in mid-November, making an instant impact in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, though it was also the first time Mourinho used Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial together.

Mourinho’s renewal of antagonisms with Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger for what would be their final head-to-head clash at the Emirates ended with Manchester United recording a 3-1 victory in what may have been the perfect way for Mourinho to get the better of “Le Professeur” once more. Despite allowing the Gunners to take 33 shots and have 75 percent possession, United were lethal on the counter as Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard scored in the first 11 minutes.

Lingard would complete his brace after the hour, and the only blemish on the victory was Pogba taking a needless red card right before the final quarter-hour. They did place atop their Champions League group with 15 points and 12 goals from their six matches, the lone blemish a 1-0 defeat at runner-up and Swiss side FC Basel.

Pogba’s absence would loom large as the first Manchester derby went blue with a 2-1 City victory that also ended United’s record-tying 40-match unbeaten run at Old Trafford. The result left United 11 points adrift of their eternal rivals after just 16 league matches, a daunting deficit.

Manchester United would regroup with back-to-back wins in league play before a stunning fifth-round Carabao Cup exit at Championship side Bristol City in which Korey Smith delivered a stoppage-time winner for the host club. That led into the congested holiday fixture list in which United ground out three draws before turning the calendar year over with a win at Everton.

The January transfer window brought in Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal while Henrikh Mkhitaryan went in the other direction, his strong start little more than a flash in the pain as his playing time was gradually cut as the season progressed. United won their first five matches in 2018 before a 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur marked by the embarrassment of conceding a goal in the first 11 seconds.

By February, it was clear City would win the league, which meant United could turn their attention to the Champions League. Mourinho played a classic pragmatic first-leg tie at Sevilla and got what was needed with a scoreless draw in which his team had only one shot on target and six overall.

The Red Devils won their next three on the bounce in league play, beating Chelsea and Liverpool at home around a victory at Crystal Park. But any dreams of a deep Champions League run to offset not being able to catch Manchester City fell apart with a shocking 2-1 home loss to Sevilla.

Wissem Ben Yedder turned the match on its head, breaking a scoreless deadlock two minutes after being introduced and completing his brace four minutes later in the 78th. Lukaku would pull one back for United, but the shock was too much to overcome as it would be a 10th straight year without lifting the Champions League trophy.

It also marked a week in which Mourinho went white-hot in attacking his team through the media, a spleen-venting that was unprecedented even by his already-high standards of using the press to get his message across. After the loss to Sevilla, he decried the lack of winning culture at United while City has risen to the ascendancy in Manchester over the past decade.

That, however, was just a broadside before the fusillade of criticism he unveiled after United’s 2-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup quarterfinals. He said his team had a “lack of personality, a lack of class and a lack of desire” and was only happy with the result of the game as he called out nearly everyone save Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.

Call it withering, call it scathing, call it anything you like, but the tirade was also one of Mourinho’s moments where he lays the groundwork for his vision going forward. The stinging rebuke was still echoing through his players’ ears three weeks later at the Etihad, where City had taken a 2-0 halftime lead and were 45 minutes away from setting a Premier League record for the earliest clinching of a title with the bonus of doing so at home against their most hated rivals.

Mourinho again reached into his bag of motivational rhetoric ploys at intermission, telling his team “you don’t want to be the clowns standing there, watching them get their title,” and this time they responded. Pogba had two scintillating goals four minutes apart before Chris Smalling latched onto a free kick by Sanchez to bag an unlikely winner. While the 3-2 United win merely delayed the inevitable of City’s third Premier League title in seven years, it was enough to calm the nerves for one weekend at least.

United reached the FA Cup final by beating Tottenham 2-1 at Wembley, then showed Wenger out the door with grace and another victory over their London foils with a 2-1 triumph as Marouane Fellaini grabbed a stoppage-time winner.

Despite losing just seven times in league play, the past season will also be remembered for the fact United somehow lost to all three promoted teams on the road, though it should also be noted Newcastle United is anything but a typical promoted side. Still, Mourinho’s side fell 1-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion, a famous victory for the Gulls that secured a second season in the top flight.

United wrapped up  league play with a draw at West Ham against former manager David Moyes and a 1-0 win over Watford. Their bid to end the season on a positive note with the FA Cup title fell by the wayside with a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Wembley as they could not overcome Eden Hazard’s penalty on 22 minutes.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester United Lineup.png

Frankly, there is little confidence in this as a projected starting XI beyond De Gea between the sticks, Sanchez on the left and Lukaku eventually leading the line in a 4-3-3 set-up that fails to take into account a potential signing of Toby Alderweireld. Luke Shaw, who has been one of Mourinho’s favorite whipping boys, likely gets the initial run-out at left back while Ashley Young recovers from World Cup duty.

Victor Lindelof should be one of the players in central defense after a solid World Cup run to the quarterfinals with Sweden. Jones moves up into a defensive midfielder’s role until Matic recovers from surgery while flanked by Pogba and summer signing Fred.

Rashford will be given every chance to lock down the spot on the right opposite Sanchez, while Martial can provide depth at either position while preferring to play on the left. It is also likely there will be room for both of them early should Lukaku be unavailable for as Sanchez can lead the line if needed.

One player who needs to find his way onto the pitch is Jesse Lingard, who was another productive player for England at the World Cup and could provide a different look in attack. Juan Mata could serve in the playmaking role in limited bursts, and Fellaini — a Mourinho favorite — also is in the mix despite rumours he wanted to leave Old Trafford.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

While a missing figure for much of last season due to injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was released in March to continue his goal-scoring exploits in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Among more immediate first-team players, Daley Blind departed for Ajax, and Matteo Darmian is reportedly trying to finalise a deal with Benfica.

While Anthony Martial wants to leave United, the current plight of missing players due to World Cup recovery means the French winger — who missed out playing for the World Cup-winning Les Bleus — likely will not get his wish. Mourinho has given his blessing for veteran defenders Marcus Rojo to move on from Old Trafford.

United have made three official signings entering the final days of the summer transfer window, the most notable one being Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk. The £52 million midfielder and Brazil international, though, suffered an injury in the run-up to the World Cup and missed out on the tournament for the Selecao.

The other confirmed signings were teenage defender Diogo Dalot from FC Porto and veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant from Stoke City. United are reportedly close to a deal for disgruntled Spurs central defender Alderweireld after being rebuffed for both Leicester City’s Harry Maguire and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Paul Pogba (MF)

A lightning rod all season long for play that ranged from breathtakingly brilliant to boringly inspid with often no middle ground, Pogba returns to Old Trafford a World Cup winner, but it was the method that raised eyebrows, including Mourinho’s.

Pogba was used in tandem with N’Golo Kante in a reserved midfield role for France once manager Didier Deschamps realised the United star could not fully co-exist in an offence that featured Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe running in every direction underneath Olivier Giroud.

To his credit, Pogba played the role beautifully — highlighted by his stunning two-way play against Belgium in the semifinals — and he did net the match-winner in the final versus Croatia. What made the success so startling is that the role Deschamps defined for Pogba was the one Mourinho was unsuccessfully trying to slot Pogba into for United.

Mourinho even lamented Pogba’s international success while praising him, noting United’s success this season could hinge on “him understanding why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are the third-best choice to win the Premier League at 13/2 odds and for a top-four finish at 2/7. They are also joint-second with Liverpool for a top-six finish at 1/20. Manchester United is third at 7/1 odds to top the table on Christmas Day and receiving 9/2 odds for a top-two finish behind City for a second straight year.

Lukaku is joint-third with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 6/1 odds, while Sanchez is further down the list at sixth with 16/1 odds. Pogba and Lukaku are the top United players in terms of Player of the Year odds, listed joint-eighth with Aubameyang and Spurs’ Christian Eriksen at 20/1.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 10 — Leicester City (10th) H
Aug. 19 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A
Aug. 27 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
Sept. 1 — Burnley (7th) A
—————
April 20 — Everton (8th) A
April 27 — Chelsea (5th) H
May 4 — Huddersfield Town (16th) A
May 12 — Cardiff City (N/A) H

OUTLOOK

With a third season of Jose Mourinho on the touchline usually comes some sort of madness that results in club disaster and/or him leaving said touchline. The track record is plainly evident — third season unrest at Chelsea in 2007 after winning the Premier League title the season before. Third season exit at Real Madrid by mutual agreement in 2013. Third-season meltdown in his second go-round at Chelsea in 2016 in which he was out the door in December.

Now he enters his third season at United. He cut an angry, disappointed figure throughout the team’s tour of the United States this summer, largely because he missed out on seemingly all his major transfer targets, but also because the tour did little to sharpen the players he needs to have any chance of ending what could be a burgeoning dynasty on the other side of the city.

His critiques about his team, while harsh, had plenty of merit. It’s hard to feel anything but aggravation like he did after the 4-1 loss to Liverpool in which so few first-team roster players, let alone starting XI players, were on the pitch.

It is a team that does not lack for talent at every position, yet there has nothing about this preseason build-up that lends belief United will contend for a title. One of the underreported storylines of the early part of the season is how will keeper David De Gea recover from a sub-par World Cup in which he made exactly ONE save in Spain’s four matches while allowing six goals and failing to stop any penalties in the loss to Russia in the round of 16?

Matic’s absence in the early part of the season could loom very large. Mourinho’s demand for a central defender seemed to offer hints he wanted to go to a three-man back line, and he may be able to do that should Alderweireld come on board, but there is a certain irony in that his pragmatic ways may become necessary ways for United to navigate their opening stretch of schedule.

Still, when everyone does become available, it is a United team that has to improve. Pogba must retain his form from the World Cup. While Lukaku did not score after the knockout rounds for Belgium, he showed plenty of nous in creating opportunities for others, and his interplay with Sanchez will determine how far United really can go.

Mourinho may have to play Martial and Marcus Rashford together more often, something he was loathe to do last season. Also, the back-and-forth with Martial has to end quickly, and chairman Ed Woodward’s insistence on not selling the Frenchman could have lasting repercussions.

Unlike the United teams under predecessor Louis van Gaal, this is not a rudderless team. But it also feels like a side drifting without a direction while the teams around them — save Tottenham Hotspur — all began moving forward with a plan. After last season’s runner-up finish, one gets the sense Manchester United is going to have to graft hard to retain a Champions League spot in the top four, and if Mourinho gets mercurial, then all bets are off.

PREDICTED FINISH

6th 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 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.

 

2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview — Belgium vs. Japan (Match 54)

Though a sweep of its Group G opponents gave Belgium a potentially easier round-of-16 match versus Japan at Rostov-on-Don on Monday, a victory would provide a challenging gauntlet to traverse for the Red Devils thereafter at the World Cup.

Much was made over whether Belgium or England would actively seek to win their group finale against the other considering both teams were through and level on points, goal difference and goals scored. Once more, the possibility of the FIFA fair play points tiebreaker being used was in play, the same method that saw Japan reach this contest at Senegal’s expense from Group H.

In a not-so-dead rubber in which 17 of the 22 players from both starting lineups were first-time starters in Russia, Adnan Januzaj’s moment of quality on a 51st-minute strike separated the two sides as Belgium recorded a 1-0 victory and claimed group honors.

Though this appears to be an easier match, the rest of Belgium’s half of the draw features World Cup champions in its path to the finals, with five-time champion Brazil a potential quarterfinal opponent and either 1998 champion France or two-time winner Uruguay in the semifinal.

It is the fifth time the Red Devils are in the knockout round in their last six appearances as they look to at least match their quarterfinal showing from four years ago in Brazil. That was just their second appearance in club history in the round of eight, with the other coming as part of their fourth-place finish in 1986 that remains their high-water mark.

After being rested against England, Romelu Lukaku resumes his chase of the Golden Boot as he enters this contest with four goals, tied for second with since-eliminated Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and one back of England’s Harry Kane. Eden Hazard has added a pair of markers for Belgium, which has found the back of the net nine times overall in Russia.

Japan gave new meaning to scraping by into the knockout round as FIFA’s seventh of eight tiebreakers allowed it passage to the round of 16. The Samurai Blue controlled their destiny heading into their final match against Poland, but after conceding a second-half goal and getting updates how things were unfolding between Senegal and Colombia, Japan manager Akira Nishino made the curious and risky decision not to go forward looking for an equalizer in the final 10 minutes knowing they held the fair play rules tiebreaker.

That was on top of the questionable overturning of his roster for the match in which he made six changes and held out top players Makoto Hasebe, Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui. The two moves in combination almost backfired late as Poland came close to scoring on two occasions, including once on an own goal, but the 1-0 loss and its disciplined play proved to be enough to let Samurai Blue make their third appearance in the round of 16 in club history.

Japan’s previous forays into the knockout round have ended with its fourth match. The Samurai Blue have never scored in this round, getting eliminated by Turkey 1-0 as co-hosts in 2002 and on penalties by Paraguay in 2010.

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′)

Japan
June 19 — Japan 2, Colombia 1 (Kagawa 6′ (PK), Quintero 39′, Osako 73′)
June 24 — Japan 2, Senegal 2 (Mane 11′, Inui 34′, Wague 71′, Honda 78′)
June 28 — Japan 0, Poland 1 (Bednarek 59′)

FORMATIONS

After making nine changes to his side for the England match, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez is expected to restore all nine players. The lone outfield holdover, central defender Dedryck Boyata, could be replaced by talisman Vincent Kompany after the Manchester City star had a 20-minute cameo for his first action of the World Cup since suffering a groin injury in the run-up to the tournament.

It is expected to be a similar story for Japan with Nishino likely using the same starting XI that fared so well against Senegal despite the 2-2 scoreline. The duo of Inui and Yuya Osako have been very effective in attack for Samurai Blue, with Inui’s pace on the left often allowing him chances to skip inside and create problems in and around the penalty area.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

The chances of Kompany actually replacing Boyata in the lineup are less than 50/50 as there is a difference between being healthy and match-fit. Kompany may be the former, but he is definitely not the latter after just 20 minutes of a match that mattered little. Of the five players on a yellow card for Belgium, three — Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier and Jan Vertonghen — are starters.

Japan appears to have everyone available for selection and has four players carrying a booking into this match — Inui, Hasebe, Tomoaki Makino and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium — Kevin De Bruyne (MF)

While he does not have a goal and has assisted on just one of Belgium’s eight goals in the run of play, De Bruyne is still the master string-puller of the offense. The Manchester City maestro is the link to Lukaku and Hazard and capable of drawing the midfield to him to create space for the pair in front of opposing back lines.

Japan — Keisuke Honda (MF)

He has played just 38 minutes in Japan’s first two minutes, but the 32-year-old Pachuca midfielder has made a devastating impact in both matches. He scored the winner against Colombia and assisted on the equalizer versus Senegal before being curiously held out against Poland. Honda is the only Asian player to have a goal and an assist in each of the last three World Cups and is tied for fourth on Japan’s all-time list with 37 goals.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

2002 (Japan/South Korea) Japan 2, Belgium 2 (Wilmots 57′, Suzuki 59′, Inamoto 67′, Van Der Heyden 75′)

The teams are meeting for the second time in the World Cup, as the 2-2 draw when Japan was a co-host helped both teams progress to the round of 16. The teams met in a friendly last November in Bruges, with Lukaku’s goal in the 72nd minute separating the sides in a 1-0 Belgium victory.

That is the lone victory for the Red Devils in five all-time matches versus Japan, losing two and drawing two.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Belgium is a resounding favorite with 2/5 odds, and Japan is the longest of longshots of the remaining matches in this round at 8/1. The odds of a draw and the match going to penalty kicks is 10/3.

The first 10 options for the first goal-scorer are all Belgians, with Lukaku the frontrunner at 14/5 odds. Batshuayi is a surprising second at 16/5, while Eden Hazard is 7/2 and Dries Mertens 5/1. Osako is Japan’s best bet at 10/1 odds, followed by key reserves Honda and Shinji Okazaki at 11/1.

PREDICTION

For the second straight World Cup, Belgium has swept through group play, and there are some parallels to this match from its round of 16 contest against the United States four years ago. Like four years ago, the Red Devils have a chance to put up overwhelming statistical advantages in this match like they did versus the Yanks in which they totaled an eye-watering 38 shots. Sixteen of them were on target as Belgium needed both De Bruyne and Lukaku to score in extra time in a 2-1 victory.

Japan has similar industry and doggedness, but it lacks the technical precision defensively on set pieces in which De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku and even Mertens can feast on in this match. Samurai Blue do have some offensive skill going forward, and Inui can give Thomas Meunier and Toby Alderweireld some fits on the left side, but he will need plenty of help from Kagawa if they are to spring a monumental upset.

Martinez can talk all he wants about how the win over England built confidence, but it was little more than a prestige victory that will look good in the history books as time moves forward. Belgium has walked the walk thus far in Russia, and while Japan is easily a cut above Panama and Tunisia, it is still not at a level where it can touch the Red Devils.

PREDICTION: Belgium 4, Japan 1.

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will play the winner of the Brazil-Mexico match in the quarterfinals July 6 in Kazan.

 

World Cup Recap Match 27 — Belgium 5, Tunisia 2 (June 23)

Romelu Lukaku recorded a brace for the second straight contest and Eden Hazard added two goals of his own as Belgium turned on the class Saturday and tore apart Tunisia 5-2 in Group G play in Moscow to all but assure itself a spot in the knockout round of the World Cup.

Michy Batshuayi completed the scoring for Roberto Martinez’s team, which has racked up eight goals in its two wins and sent a message ahead of their final group play match against England. The Red Devils have the maximum six points and will advance to the round of 16 if the Three Lions defeat Panama as expected Sunday.

Lukaku joined Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo with four goals as joint leaders in the race for the Golden Boot. The Manchester United striker has been irresistible since arriving in Russia and became the first player to score at least two goals in back-to-back World Cup games since Argentina’s Diego Maradona in 1986.

Already the all-time leading scorer in Belgium history, Lukaku now has 40 goals in 71 international appearances.

Tunisia was all but mathematically eliminated with the loss, though it did break through against Belgium’s defense for goals on either side of halftime through defender Dylan Bronn and forward Wahbi Khazri. The Eagles of Carthage have gone winless in 13 straight World Cup matches (0-4-9) since defeating Mexico in their first contest in 1978.

Belgium struck quickly in the sixth minute, with Hazard getting drilled on a clumsy challenge from Syam Ben Youssef as he carried the ball into the penalty area on the right. The Chelsea star coolly slotted into the left corner without challenge from keeper Farouk Ben Mustapha.

Ten minutes later, it was Lukaku’s turn. He veered inside then outside as Dries Mertens carried the ball before laying it off to his left. Lukaku carried the ball into the penalty and struck clinically with his left foot, going through Ben Youssef’s legs and beating Mustapha inside the right post from 15 yards.

Bronn, though, gave Tunisia a lifeline with a response on 18 minutes. Khazri whipped in a free kick from the left, and Bronn hit a perfect header from six yards, beating Thibaut Courtois inside the right post to make it 2-1.

Bronn, though, would be forced off six minutes later after twisting his knee. The match continued at a blistering pace, with Mustapha forced into action to snuff out another scoring chance for Lukaku before Ferjani Sassi fired a 20-yard shot wide of the left post.

Tunisia’s misery worsened in the 41st minute when Ben Youssef had to be removed due to a knock. The Red Devils were able to exploit the weakened back four right before halftime as Kevin De Bruyne started the play that led to Lukaku’s second.

He slid the ball from the right sideline laterally to Thomas Meunier, who slipped a through ball for Lukaku, who timed his diagonal run perfectly and clipped the ball over Mustpaha with his right foot to restore Belgium’s two-goal advantage and sap the spirits of the Eagles of Carthage.

Six minutes after the restart, Toby Alderweireld picked out Hazard with a tracer of a pass over the middle, splitting Tunisia’s defense. Hazard raced into the penalty area, caressed it around Mustapha and calmly finished to make it 4-1.

The match well in hand and wanting to avoid his stars picking up further knocks, Martinez pulled Lukaku on the hour and Hazard eight minutes later as Marouane Fellani and Batshuayi, respectively.

While Belgium was ruthless, Tunisia was toothless. The Red Devils gave them plenty of space to pour forward, but the finishing was not up to snuff for the Eagles as Khazri let a nice cross from Fakhreddine Ben Youssef go begging and Anice Badri failed to test Courtois from distance.

Batshuayi nearly had a goal in the 76th minute after a through ball from Yannick Carrasco, but after rounding Ben Mustapha, his finish lacked pace and was cleared off the line. The Dortmund striker then hit the crossbar from point-blank range after Ben Mustapha spilled Carrasco’s shot in front of him.

But the third time proved to be a charm as Youri Tielemans picked him out from the right with an inch-perfect cross Batshuayi volleyed across goal inside the right post on 90 minutes.

Tunisia made the scoreline more respectable in stoppage time as Khazri planted and spun a right-footed shot inside the left post from six yards on a cross from Hamdi Naguez.

If there is a concern for Belgium, which put a whopping 12 of its 23 shots on target, it has been the play of central defender Dedryck Boyata. The Celtic defender has been exploited in both matches as he deputizes for injured talisman Vincent Kompany in the three-man backline for the Red Devils.

Kompany, sidelined with a groin injury, could see his first action of this World Cup against England, though Martinez has hinted he may rest both Lukaku and Hazard, citing a right ankle injury for the former.