You’ve seen Germany spectacularly eliminated at the group stage. You’ve experienced the shock of watching Spain knocked out in a penalty shootout by an inspired Russian side in the last 16. You’ve cheered along with the rest of England, and probably have ‘Three Lions’ stuck on repeat in your head. But now it’s the real business end of this bonkers World Cup, with the final four teams all hoping to make history in Tuesday and Wednesday’s hotly anticipated semi-finals.
France v Belgium
There was an air of nonchalance among the Belgium players in the post-match interviews following their 2-1 deconstruction of Brazil on Friday. Of course they were going to beat the pre-tournament favourites, of course they were going to take the harder route to the final and make it there; how could they not, when they have superstars like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Thibaut Courtois in their team?
France will provide a tremendous obstacle to overcome should the Belgians want to reach their first ever World Cup final, however. Perhaps it would be doing Brazil a disservice to say that Belgium’s upcoming semi-final against France will be their toughest test so far. Although perhaps not, given the blitzkreig this supremely talented French team unleashed upon a hapless Argentina, and the clinical 2-0 blow they inflicted upon a Uruguayan side used to winning, not losing, by that margin. They should have won their own European Championship two years ago, and the team have only improved since then; remember, the sublime Kylian Mbappe wasn’t even part of the team in 2016.
In a match containing so many global superstars, the only certain winners are the neutrals. Belgium have produced 14 goals and France nine in the six games they have each played. Goalkeepers Courtois and Hugo Lloris both produced wonder-saves in the last round, and are capable of more on Tuesday. The first semi-final is set up to be a truly sizzling affair of skill, flair, and passion, and it is sure to entertain and enthrall for 90 minutes or beyond. Whoever emerges victorious will surely be favourites for the greatest prize of all.
When? 7pm, Tuesday 10th July.
Where? BBC1. Coverage starts at 6:30pm, but is subject to change.
England v Croatia
The opening verse of The Lightning Seeds’ ‘Three Lions’ perfectly encapsulates the mood up and down England as our national team approaches our first semi-final since 1990, and only our third ever. Everyone seemed to know the score before we’d even kicked off against Tunisia three long weeks ago. England were “gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away,” and crash out at the group stage in humiliation, just as we did four years ago in Brazil.
What happened, of course, was the most dramatic of last-gasp winners, followed by a brutal 6-1 demolition of tournament minnows Panama. Victory on penalties in the last 16 against Colombia followed by a comfortable 2-0 quarter-final win over Sweden in the ensuing rounds has perhaps done even more than the 2012 Olympics to produce a real summer of optimism across the country. Suddenly, we all “know they can play”: football’s coming home.
But first, the Three Lions will have to overcome a Croatian side that, despite looking less-than-impressive in the knockouts – requiring extra time and penalties against both Denmark and Russia – blew everyone away in the group stage. With a packed midfield sporting two real superstars in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia have the potential – as they demonstrated in their 3-0 win over Argentina – to overwhelm the opposition, to overawe whoever they face into defeat.
England will hope they face the Croatia we’ve watched in the last two matches. Should the Croatians set up how they did against Russia and Denmark, the outstanding back three of Maguire, Stones and Walker should easily be able to contain Mandzukic, Perisic, and that Croatian midfield, whilst the three goals conceded across their last two games suggest a permeable defence that would hopefully provide easy pickings for Lingard, Sterling and Kane.
If Croatia do turn up, though, this will certainly provide Southgate’s men with their sternest test at the 2018 World Cup so far. Henderson and the back line were able to resist wave after wave of Colombian attack in their last-16 tie (for 92 minutes, at least), so they should be able to whether the storm produced by Modric and Rakitic. But it would be a challenge, and one that could certainly swing either way. The key will be Lingard, Alli and Sterling producing the kind of forward runs that cut up defences and provide Kane with the service he needs. If England can go 2-0 up, I don’t see Croatia finding any way back from there. And then, who knows? Maybe football will be coming home after all.
When? 7pm, Wednesday 11th July.
Where? ITV. Coverage starts at 6:30pm, but is subject to change.
History has already been made. Tuesday and Wednesday will see the first ever World Cup semi-finals that fail to feature at least one of Brazil, Argentina, or Germany. They may yet prove to deliver more history in the making, with Belgium and Croatia vying to reach their first ever World Cup finals, and France and England hoping to reach their first finals for 20 and 52 years respectively. The prize for all four teams is a spot in the sporting world’s marquee blue riband event, and a real chance to win the world’s greatest prize. History awaits.