Belgium vs. France: Who has the edge in their World Cup semifinal?
Tuesday's World Cup semifinal sees two of the strongest teams in the tournament face off but is still considered something of a surprise. Belgium defeating Brazil was an upset, even considering the brilliant players they have at their disposal, while over the past couple of years France have under-performed considering the incredible levels of talent available to Didier Deschamps.
Both sides have overcome impressive opponents in Russia so far, but who has the edge to take them all the way to the final?
Olivier Giroud was put in a tricky situation this week when he was asked who was the better goalkeeper: Chelsea teammate Thibaut Courtois or France teammate Hugo Lloris? "They both deserve to be elected as best keeper of the tournament, even if I have a preference for Hugo," he said. "The best is Hugo. Sorry Thibaut."
It certainly is a tough call between two of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, if not the world. But on the basis of this tournament, we have to disagree with Giroud. Belgium deserve high praise for their all-round performance against Brazil but in truth, they might not have even been in this semifinal were it not for a quite brilliant performance from Courtois, in particular his save from Neymar at the very last. Sorry Hugo.
It will be interesting to see what approach Roberto Martinez takes with his back line. For almost all of his two years in charge, he has operated with a back three and it looked like the returning Vincent Kompany would slot in between Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. But against Brazil, Martinez chose a four-man defence with Vertonghen at left-back. The approach worked then, but will it succeed against France's frequently devastating attacking trio?
There should be fewer questions over France's defence, which will be the four that started all but one of their matches so far unless there's a significant surprise. The win over Argentina was a little chaotic but they stood firm against Uruguay, and their central partnership of Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane has arguably been the strongest of the tournament.
Again, this might depend on which system Martinez chooses. In terms of the qualities of the individual personnel, it's no contest: N'Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi would be better than most midfield trios you could care to name, but might Belgium have a more effective unit? The decision to switch formations might have been inspired, as much as anything else, by the desire to get Kevin de Bruyne further forward, which paid off handsomely with what turned out to be the decisive goal.
It feels faintly absurd to favourably compare a midfield diamond featuring Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli with France's but the purpose of that set-up is to get the best from their more accomplished players. Specifically, De Bruyne. But ultimately, France have the edge: the skill, running, intelligence, strength and invention from their trio is surely superior to their opponents.
This is an extremely tough call. One thing Deschamps has got right is not trying to cram the best players into a system, instead finding the best combination of players in France's attack. It must have been tempting to try to find room for the flair of Thomas Lemar or Nabil Fekir but instead Deschamps shrewdly chose Giroud, rarely first choice for either his club sides last season, as what Antonio Conte always refers to as a "point of reference" for Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe.
For Belgium, Romelu Lukaku has arguably been the best centre-forward at the tournament. Harry Kane has more goals but the Manchester United striker's performances have been brilliant even when he didn't find the net: see his dummy for the winner against Japan, or the run that set up De Bruyne against Brazil. With Eden Hazard alongside him (though Dries Mertens hasn't shown his Napoli form) Belgium have a formidable forward line. It's razor close but perhaps just because of Lukaku, Belgium take it.
It's easy to be suspicious of Roberto Martinez, so much a smooth talker that he occasionally comes across as a motivational speaker or self-help guru who fell into football almost by accident. But there's little doubt that he's doing a fine job with Belgium so far: They haven't lost since his first game, and against Brazil he produced a tactical switch that few expected, but ultimately worked beautifully.
The verdict remains out on Didier Deschamps. There's still a sense that he could be doing more with the brilliant set of players at his disposal, France frequently a fairly stodgy team to watch, relying on moments of brilliance from Pogba, Mbappe or Griezmann. But perhaps he is getting somewhere: France have come through some tricky games to reach this stage and has found a system that works. Still, Martinez just edges this on the basis that he seems to add more to his team than Deschamps.
Both teams will have to deal with the pressure of succeeding, and succeeding now: Given their opponents in the final, neither will have a better chance to win the World Cup, and Belgium in particular have a celebrated generation of players who need to deliver now, because who knows when this small country will produce a better group.
But France also have the ghost of previous high-profile failures behind them, specifically the Euro 2016 final that they should in theory have strolled against Portugal only to choke on home turf. Will that failure inspire or diminish them as they face probably their toughest test of the tournament so far?
Prediction: France 1-2 Belgium
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.