The semi-final line-up is complete and two intriguing, all-European ties lie in wait. But while the teams in the last four of Russia 2018 hail from the same continent, the similarities end there.
France, Belgium, England and Croatia all boast very different attributes, and who better to assess these than the Team Reporters who have been with them every step of the way? Read on, therefore, for the experts’ views on the semi-finalists’ main strengths.
Not so long ago, Didier Deschamps would have been criticised for this aspect of his France team, with some journalists alleging that Les Bleus had a thousand faces and no real identity. In fact, it is emerging as a vital attribute. Functional during their group matches, France were spectacular against Argentina, then solid and efficient against Uruguay. Three different French teams ? No – the same, but with different tactics.
France know how to adapt their style depending on their opponents, and that is a rare and precious ability. The tactical set-up can be 4-3-3 one match and 4-2-3-1 the next, while Deschamps can decide to use Olivier Giroud’s size or Kylian Mbappe’s speed to destabilise defences. As we’ve seen during this World Cup, there are no weak teams anymore and even giants like Germany and Spain had a hard time playing ‘their game’. Possession doesn’t ensure victory and experience doesn’t guarantee success. Options are everything.
Belgium: Team spirit
The Belgians arrived with one of the best squads on paper, but their biggest success in Russia has been establishing strong collective values.
This may represent their most important asset simply because it has not always been present in the past. Nor has this Belgium team previously been famed for resilience, which they showed in bucket-loads against both Japan and Brazil. Their star individuals, including the magic trio of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, have stepped up when needed. But it’s also worth noting that the Red Devils have had nine different goalscorers in Russia. Everyone is playing their part.
Roberto Martinez, too, seems to be the right man at the right time, as he looks to have found a way to get the best from his collection of stars and bring them together as a unit. In this Belgian squad, everyone is fit to play and ready to make sacrifices on the pitch or, in some cases, to accept their status as substitutes and support their team-mates.
Picking a single strength to define England is increasingly difficult, as Gareth Southgate’s side continue to find new and different ways to win. We’re all becoming accustomed to how this young, ever-improving side uses confidence, a modern system and togetherness to its advantage. They are prepared for any match situation, any opposition and their game management is ruthlessly effective.
England have even won their first World Cup penalty shootout here in Russia, and that is before we even begin to examine the individual stars, from their heroic goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to the talisman and tournament top-scorer, Harry Kane – each just 24 years of age.
This could be the most complete England side we have seen since 1990, the last time the Three Lions reached a semi-final. Yet this team, with its modern, patient and composed approach to the game, is also breaking the Three Lions mould. They are here to make their own history.
Croatia: Midfield talent
Given the manner in which they sailed through arguably Russia 2018’s most difficult group, and survived two stern tests in the knockout stages, Croatia have been one of the teams of the tournament. The greatest asset that Zlatko Dalic’s side possess is undoubtedly their midfield, which ranks as one of the best at this World Cup. The players in that department of the team almost always seem composed, organised and unruffled.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are the lynchpins of this Croatia team. It is not often that players from Madrid and Barcelona combine to such devastating effect, but that is exactly what Rakitic is doing with Modric at the heart of the Vatreni engine room. They are far from alone though. Add in Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic, Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic, Fiorentina’s Milan Badelj and it all adds up to a truly superb generation of Croatian midfielders.