They have been described as the golden generation of Belgian football. The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Yannick Carrasco, Dries Mertens, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertoghen Kevin De Bruyne, Adran Januzaj etc Their status and pedigree have often conferred on them a favourites tag they have often, regrettably, failed to live up to.
If tournaments were to be won solely on paper or FIFA’s monthly rankings, the Red Devils would easily be champions time and time again. But tournaments are won on the field of play and the Belgians have sadly failed to translate their huge talent into winning games and the big time football championships that matter.
They flattered to deceive at the Euro 2016 Championships in France as they failed to jell, even with a star-studded team that put every foot wrong from start to finish. In the end, the Belgians could only watch as a less endowed Portugal went on to be crowned champions.
Well, that was two years ago. A lot of transformation seems to have taken place since then as the Belgians are now suddenly favourites to win football’s most prized diadem, the FIFA World Cup!
Oh, how the fortunes of a team can change so quickly. From a team that has always been written off as pretenders to be real contenders for football’s greatest prize within a month is indeed a mighty leap.
Belgium started their campaign lumped together with teams like England, Tunisia and debutants, Panama in Group G. But after picking three straight wins against all three group opponents and coming away with nine goals, and a hundred per cent record, they are now being looked upon with different eyes.
They were a hair’s breath away from being sensationally eliminated by Japan in the round of 16 until Nacer Chadli’s third goal and final goal in a 3-2 win saved the day.
But the world really began to take notice of the Roberto Martinez lads after they knocked out five- time champions, Brazil in the quarter- finals recently.
Now, as they clash with former champions, France in their first semi- finals since Mexico’86, all eyes will naturally be focused on them.
The questions that easily come to mind will be whether the Belgians would finally fulfil their latent potentials and win the World Cup– a trophy that has never been won by any team outside , Brazil, Germany, Uruguay, Argentina, Italy, England, France, and Spain — at Russia 2018 ?
As the Belgians line up against the Le Bleus at St Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday, they face their biggest test yet with an equally heavily endowed opponent. Name them, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kante, Olivier Giroud, Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane, Kylian Mbappe, Hugo Lloris, and so on. These are match winners any day!
The French, just like their Belgian rivals, have reached the semi- finals, brandishing a hundred percent record after five straight victories in matches against Australia, Peru, and Denmark, in the first round, and against former champions, Argentina and Uruguay in the round of 16 as well as the quarter- finals.
Both teams are familiar foes, judging by the number of times they have met . While the Belgians have had the upper hand in 30 of their 53 meetings across all competitions, the French have been more dominant at the World Cup with three wins in six encounters.
But the Red Devils appear to be more commanding lately, considering their 4-3 win over Didier Deschamps men in a keenly contested friendly on June 2015.
But astute football astutes will be ready to wager that Wednesday’s semi- final clash between the two teams is anybody’s, considering thin margin of difference between them.
As has already been seen too many already in the ongoing tournament, the pendulum of victory easily shifts to the team that demonstrates the greater hunger to win. Belgium showed great character to rally back to beat a dogged Japan in the round of 16 after falling to quick goals.
Although it can be argued that they have played teams with a lesser pedigree than their opponents, France who have had to navigate the landmines posed by two South American powerhouses, Argentina and Uruguay to get to this stage, the growing hunger and self belief in the Belgian squad could prove the crucial difference on the night.
INPUTS FROM THE BENCH
A number of great matches have be known to be won from the bench. Tuesday’s game is not expected to be different.
Roberto Martinez have proved to be the missing pawn in the often confused Belgian jig- saw puzzle as his emergence has stabilised and exposed the hidden potentials in the team.
With former French international and Arsenal legend, Thierry Henry lending a helping hand in an assistant coach capacity, the Belgians are set for a record breaking outing.
Henry’s presence on the Belgian side is already an unsettling variable in the Belgium, France match up as Olivier Giroud has spoken out against it.
“We will prove to Thierry Henry that he is on the wrong side,” the former Arsenal was quoted as saying on Monday.
The French are no less motivated as they aim to add to the title they won the first time as hosts in 1998. After the disappointments of reaching the finals of the Germany 2006 World Cup , and the Euro 2016 Championships and not winning it, the Le Bleus will be in no mood to throw this one.
All the elements of an explosive encounter are loaded into this encounter as it will be no retreat, no surrender for both teams as they aim for the final, and chance to sip from football’s most coveted 24-carat gold trophy. Who takes this game on Tuesday? The question remains….