France will unleash the attacking talents of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann against Eden Hazard’s gifted Belgium side in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday with a place in the World Cup final at stake.
The semi-final matchup of the European neighbours promises to be full of intrigue as France aim to return to the final for the first time since a Zinedine Zidane-led team did so in Germany in 2006.
Belgium will be seeking to break new ground by reaching the final for the first time in their history — indeed they have only reached the semi-finals once before, in 1986.
The winner will face either Croatia or England, who play on Wednesday, in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.
With Eden Hazard pulling the strings and Romelu Lukaku providing the firepower, Belgium have what it takes to beat France.
But their secret weapon could be on the sidelines in the shape of one of France’s greatest players of all time, Thierry Henry, who is now head coach Roberto Martinez’s assistant.
Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Henry was part of the French squad that won the World Cup on home soil 20 years ago and played 123 times for his country, scoring 51 times.
Now it is his job to halt the run of his home nation.
“He will be feeling divided loyalties tomorrow,” France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said on Monday.
“He is first and foremost French. But tomorrow, on a professional level, he will be putting all the passion that drives him into the Belgian team.”
Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne said Henry had talked little about his feelings.
“Perhaps he will sing the Marseillaise (before the game), which I find normal,” De Bruyne said.
“It might be a bit difficult for him but he’s working for Belgium now, he wants us to win.”
Belgium’s confidence will be high after knocked out Neymar’s Brazil in the quarter-finals and they are the only team to have won all their matches in Russia, top-scoring with 14 goals.
Didier Deschamps’ France side failed to fire in their group matches but burst into life in the 4-3 demolition of Argentina as Mbappe overshadowed Lionel Messi and announced his arrival as a new superstar of the game.
The French then showed their steel in the 2-0 disposal of Luis Suarez and Uruguay in the quarter-finals.
France are favourites because of their mix of youth and experience allied to tournament nous after they reached the Euro 2016 final.
– ‘Always believed’ –
As World Cup fever builds at home, England are avoiding the hype as the coach Gareth Southgate prepares his team in their tranquil base near Saint Petersburg for their first semi-final since 1990.
While many England fans are surprised by the unheralded team’s progress, midfielder Dele Alli says the squad always believed they could go far.
“We had to believe and we know how talented we are as a squad,” he said.
“We know we have some unbelievable players and a great manager and everyone is clear on what we want to do.
“When you have such a solid foundation, you have the basics and clear understanding of what we want to do and achieve, it’s not a surprise that it’s going well for us.”
Southgate has told his players they have the potential to be bigger heroes even than the team featuring Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton that win on home soil in 1966.
Captain Harry Kane is leading England’s charge with six goals so far, putting him top in the race for the Golden Boot. Lukaku is on four goals and Griezmann and Mbappe have three each.
Croatia can count on Real Madrid’s midfield talisman Luka Modric, named man of the match three times in Russia, but his teammate Andrej Kramaric says England’s lack of superstars is what makes them a cohesive unit.
“England was one of the favourites for me for the tournament because they have a young and hungry team with no big, international stars, so it won’t be easy for us.”
Croatia could well be battling fatigue and injuries after a strength-sapping penalty shootout to edge out host nation Russia on Saturday.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and right-back Sime Vrsaljko, who both picked up an injury against Russia, and centre-back Dejan Lovren were all absent from the part of the session open to media.
Croatia excluded former international Ognjen Vukojevic from their delegation on Monday for posting a pro-Ukraine video clip following the win over Russia. He was also fined by FIFA.
Defender Domagoj Vida escaped with just a warning from FIFA, which bans political statements, for also appearing in the video and shouting “Glory to Ukraine!”
FINAL ATTRACTED 1.12 BILLION VIEWERS! Russia 2018 is best watched World Cup ever, says FIFA
A record audience of more than 3.5 billion people watched this year’s World Cup in Russia, with the final between France and Croatia attracting 1.12 billion viewers, world soccer’s governing body said on Friday.
FIFA said 3.572 billion viewers – more than half of the global population aged four and over – watched some part of the official coverage, which was broadcast live in every territory worldwide from June 14 to July 15.
The global in-home TV audience watching at least one minute of the coverage accounted for almost 3.3 billion viewers, a 2.2 per cent increase on the 2014 edition hosted in Brazil, according to FIFA’s audit of audience data published on Friday.
A further 309.7 million caught the action on digital platforms, public viewing areas or in bars and restaurants.
France’s 4-2 victory in the final, which gave them their second World Cup title following their triumph in 1998, was the most watched game of the competition.
It was followed by England’s semi-final defeat to Croatia and the other last-four clash between France and Belgium.
“These figures really do support the claim that Russia 2018 was the best World Cup ever,” said FIFA’s chief commercial officer, Philippe Le Floc’h.
“The fact that half the world’s population watched the FIFA World Cup reflects not just the high quality of our award-winning live coverage, but also that fans everywhere are insatiable for world-class football.”
The World Cup coverage reached around 1.6 billion individuals in Asia, with 655.7 million viewers (18.4 per cent of the global total) in China, who failed to qualify for the tournament.
The 2022 edition of World Cup will be held in Qatar.
HE HAS A VERY GOOD RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN! Mbappe donates £384,000 World Cup 2018 earnings to charity
French professional footballer, Kylian Mbappé, will donate money earned from featuring in the 2018 World Cup tournament in Russia to a sports charity that works with disabled and hospitalised children, Premiers de Cordee.
According to Sports Illustrated, the 19-year-old who plays as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain was paid £17,000 per game and pocketed £265,000 for being part of the team who won the tournament.
Speaking to Le Parisien, Premier de Cordee charity general manager, Sebastian Ruffin said:
“Kylian, he’s a great person.
“When his schedule allows it, he intervenes for us with pleasure.
“He has a very good [relationship] with children, he always finds the right [words] to encourage them.
“I sometimes even feel that [he] takes more pleasure to play with the kids than the kids themselves.”
Mbappe, who joined PSG for a fee of around £166m from Monaco after a season-long loan, was named Young Player of the World Cup.
Mbappe became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958.
TENS OF THOUSANDS! Croatians give heroes’ welcome to World Cup squad
Tens of thousands of Croatians gave a heroes’ welcome to their team in Zagreb on Monday after the squad returned from Russia following their World Cup final defeat.
A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 thronged the capital’s main square to see the players, led by captain and World Cup Golden Ball winner Luka Modric, parade through the streets on an open-top bus.
Cheering fans, many waving flags and wearing the famous red and white shirt of Croatia, held up banners celebrating the runners-up after their gallant 4-2 defeat by France.
“This is how Croatia is loved,” read one banner. Another said: “We are few, but we believed and that is enough”.
Many even skipped work to celebrate the team reaching their first ever World Cup final.
“I closed my office to welcome our heroes. I put a sign up reading ‘Today, July 16, 2018’, office closed due to our Vatreni (‘the Fiery Ones’ in Croatian),” doctor Sanja Klajic told AFP.
Earlier noisy fans awaited their side’s appearance by singing a popular song “Play on my Croatia, when I see you my heart is on fire!” while watching the plane carrying the team progress to the capital on a giant TV screen.
When the plane, accompanied by military jets and emblazoned with the logo “Bravo Vatreni” flew overhead the crowd cheered and chanted “Hands up, hands up!”.
After landing at the city’s airport around 3:25 pm (1325 GMT), the players emerged to shrieks from fans at the terminal.
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