By Ras Wadada
The remaining four match-days among the last standing four teams promise to provide the four best matches of Russia 2018 since the two places to contest the grand finale are up for grabs. The journey in the quest for the most coveted prize in sport, within the last month, has been one of shocking upsets and surprising results, while creating wide-spread debate and predictions in preparation for the climaxing of the most unpredictable tournament in the 88-year history of the World Cup.
In reaching the all-European final four, France, Belgium, England and Croatia have provided great hope for their respective nations, and, complemented by the exuding confidence of the teams, the World can be prepared for a very special treat of the ‘Beautiful Game’ over the next two days. This is the stage where there is no room for error, especially in defence, while in attack, opportunities, however few, when provided, can come back to haunt if not made full use of. In simple Guyanese parlance, ‘things get tight’.
France vs Belgium
To many fans around the World, this first semi-final of the 21st edition of the FIFA’s Men’s World Cup should be the final and while the experts appear divided on the outcome of what is anticipated to be the match of the tournament, the kick-off is most eagerly awaited. The ‘French Connection’ will, today, bring together France and northern neighbors Belgium in a battle for a place in Sunday’s Championship match. The Didier Deschamps-coached Les Bleus unit, will confront a Roberto Martinez coached ‘Golden Generation’, bubbling with confidence and hungry to continue writing their memorable chapter after eliminating five-time champions Brazil 2-1 last Friday. Earlier in the day, the French easily disposed of Uruguay 2-0 to set up today’s meeting.
The younger and more talented Les Bleus squad might have laboured in the group stage before playing more confidently and cohesively in the knockout stage and are just about ready to peak. On the opposite side the Belgians have been perfect in their five outings and feel this is their time to become World Champions.
The two sides can be classified as evenly matched in attack and midfield while the French, marshalled by La Liga’s Samuel Umtiti and Rafael Varane, hold the edge in defence over the Vincent Kompany-led back-line. There is no denying that Thiabout Courtois is the better of the two goalkeepers who will be on show today, and will be called upon to maintain his brilliance if the Red Devils are to succeed.
The key match-up in today’s fixture will be at midfield between Chelsea teammates Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante, contrasting roles that surely will bring out the best in both. Hazard the play-maker and match winner, will be hard pressed by the energetic Kante as they put aside club honor for national pride. Another Chelsea face-off, but of lesser significance, is the Red Devils’ custodian against France’s forward Oliver Giroud who is seeking his first World Cup goal.
Expect goals and breathtaking plays as both sides have explosive talents that have the knack for scoring goals in 25 year-old Romelu Lukaku of Belgium and 19-year-old French sensation Kylian Mbappe. Midfielders Paul Pogba of France and Kevin De Bruyne his counterpart have also proven their importance in both line-ups and can also be decisive in the final outcome of this showdown. The stage is set for another World Cup classic that can go all the way into penalty kicks, though I suspect it will end in regulation time 3-2 in favor of Les Bleus.
England vs Croatia
Tomorrow’s other semi-final should also be entertaining with the Three Lions appearing in their third semi-final while Croatia has eclipsed their 1998 debut performance and are determined to better the third place they secured on that occasion.
Amidst the current political turmoil in England, the nation is fully behind Captain Harry Kane and his confident squad, already claiming the Cup in some quarters while generating high expectations elsewhere. This is an England side that has virtually cruised through to this point and looks prepared and focused to lift the top prize, though they must safe guard against over-cockiness against a very talented and experienced Croatian side which has exemplified grit and determination in securing ‘back-to-back’ penalty shoot-out wins and becoming the first team to register such feat in the history of the World Cup.
The key to England’s success so far has been their near perfect execution of dead ball set-pieces from which they have netted 8 of their 11 goals and this is of grave concern to the Luka Modric-led team. Another factor that is of equal concern for Croatia must be the physical and mental drain after successive games of 120 minutes and penalty kicks. Despite all the rigours endured along the way, they are a very talented generation of Croatians who are bent on rewriting the nation’s football history.
Gareth Southgate has done a tremendous job in putting together and adequately preparing, this England side where unity and confidence continue to grow and be their strengths. In Captain Kane they have a world class goal scorer who has converted 12 goals in his first eight games as leader of England. His six goals tally puts him in pole position for the Golden Boot Award. Belgium’s Lukaku with four is his closest rival.
The Barcelona-Real Madrid midfield combination of Ivan Rakatic and Captain Modric has been inspirational in the team’s winning run, not to forget Mateo Kovacic also of Real. For all their midfield talents and thirst to play in their first championship game, it looks like the adventurous campaign of the Croats will be brought to an end by a much younger and hungrier ‘Three Lions’. It will be no walk in the park for the English, but their relentless attacks will be rewarded in the end with a 2-0 victory and a place in only their second championship final and an opportunity to equal the 1966 triumph.
However accurate or inaccurate these projections are the journey to the summit of World Cup Glory gets steeper and the days and matches lesser. As we wind down with the final four chapters of Russia 2018 I am almost sure we are all asking – what more surprises are we in for?