25’: Fellaini in the Right Spot
First corner for France (Belgium has four). Felliani easily heads it away.
23’: France Counterattacks
Another long pass from halfway, and this time Olivier Giroud is on it for France. He lunges for it, doesn’t get quite all of it, and it goes wide.
Kevin Draper: It is quite surprising how flat France has begun this game. They have just as many all-world attackers as Belgium and a defense anchored by stalwarts from Real Madrid and Barcelona, and yet they look like they have already conceded that Belgium is the much better team.
22’: Belgium Firing Away
Off of yet another corner, the ball trickles free to Toby Alderweireld at the penalty spot. His left-footed shot is punched out by Hugo Lloris for another corner kick, which amounts to nothing.
Andrew Das: Belgium has come close about four times in the past five minutes — the last on that Alderweireld shot off the corner that Lloris was lucky to save with a dive. It’s been a really entertaining first 20 minutes, but 90 percent of that has been Belgium nearly scoring.That they haven’t may be the one good thing France has done so far.
20’: Scare for France
De Bruyne tries a little chip-shot pass to Felliani, who is just about offsides, although the flag does not go up. Lloris punches it away after a moment of terror for France.
19’: Varane Saves One
Eden Hazard whips a shot towards the outside post from inside the box, but Raphaël Varane barely got the back of his head on it to hit it behind for a corner.
18’: France Fires, but Courtois Is There
Blaise Matuidi, returning to France’s lineup for this game, fires off a shot from outside the box that forces Courtois into a save.
Andrew Das: That was a rocket from Matuidi, and a great sign for France. But it hits Courtois right in the gloves. But once again, Belgium is right back at the other end in seconds, with Hazard lashing a shot that Varane nods jussssst over the crossbar behind a beaten Lloris.
16’: Hazard Misses
Off an interception, Kevin De Bruyne plays a quick one-touch ball to Eden Hazard in the box and he’s unmarked. But Hazard hits it wide right! Good chance.
Kevin Draper: Both Belgium and France have had their best chances of the match in the last few minutes, and perhaps not coincidentally both came quickly after turnovers. This might be a match of intentionally soaking up pressure in order to entice midfielders forward, before hitting back on the counter attack.
14’: De Bruyne Loses One
Kevin De Bruyne just attacked the French defense at speed, but a miscommunication with Romelu Lukaku caused a turnover and ruined the chance.
13’: Pogba Finds Mbappe
A long through ball from halfway by Paul Pogba finds Kylian Mbappe, and he’s a half step ahead of his man. But Courtois slides down to grab it just in time.
Andrew Das: Belgium in a bit of a fluid formation, with Witsel and Dembele protecting the back three, and Chadli dropping in at eight back when France has the ball and he has time.
10’: France Flickers
A rare venture forward by Griezmann and France brings their fans to life — but only briefly, as Kompany clears the first sign of danger with a powerful header. And back down the other end we go ….
Kevin Draper: Both teams have shown ruthless counterattacking prowess this tournament, and so each attack seems cautious in throwing numbers forward. Belgium is patiently probing the French defense, with Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembele both staying at home to protect the back three.
9’: Belgium the Better Side Right Now
Belgium’s passing has been crisp and prolific so far, with France going some extended periods without touching the ball.
6’: Corner for Belgium
Nacer Chadli’s corner is a little too strong and goes over his teammates’ heads.
4’: Belgium Keeps Possession
That early burst of brilliance by Mbappe has been followed by a few minutes of Belgium trying whatever it wants on the right.
1’: Mbappe Makes a Statement
it took Mbappe all of five seconds to drop Vertonghen like a bad penny, race down the wing and flash in a cross that ALMOST met Griezmann in stride. Great start for France.
Kickoff in St. Petersburg!
Belgium in red, France in blue.
Feeling like Nostradamus?
You can bet on the exact score of the game (after 90 minutes). The favorite is 1-1, followed by 1-0 France, 0-0, 2-1 France, 1-0 Belgium and 2-1 Belgium. Think regulation time will end in tie of 4-4 or higher? If you’re right, you’ll be rewarded with a payout of 400-1.
Yellow Cards Are Cleared
Yellow cards were wiped out after the quarterfinals, so anyone who picks one up today would still be eligible to play in Sunday’s final. A red card, though, is a different story; anyone sent off today faces a one-match ban.
France’s Starting Lineup
France sticks with what’s worked: Pavard-Varane-Umtiti-Hernandez across the back, protected by Kanté and Pogba as needed. Matuidi, Griezmann and Mbappé will swirl in and around Giroud, who starts alone up top
Goalkeeper: 1 Hugo Lloris (Tottenham)
Defenders: 21 Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid), 2 Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), 5 Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), 4 Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)
Midfielders: 13 N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), 14 Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), 6 Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Forwards: 9 Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), 7 Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), 10 Kylian Mbappe (Paris St Germain)
Belgium’s Starting Lineup
Belgium, too,, sticks with what’s working: Fellaini starts again with Witsel and Mousa Dembélé in a hard-working, flanked by Nacer Chadli and De Bruyne. Hazard and Lukaku up front, and the same three-man back line that got them this far: Vertonghen, Kompany and Alderweireld.
Goalkeeper: 1 Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea)
Defenders: 2 Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), 4 Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), 5 Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham)
Midfielders: 7 Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), 19 Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), 8 Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), 10 Eden Hazard (Chelsea), 6 Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)
Forwards: 22 Nacer Chadli (West Brom), 9 Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United)
Belgium’s More Accurate
Belgium’s attack has been prolific, shooting 85 times, second only to Brazil. France has shot only 56 times, trailing eliminated countries like Spain, Germany and Mexico. Belgium’s shots have also been more accurate: 39 percent have been on target, compared with 34 percent of France’s shots.
Belgium’s Winning Streak
Belgium lost its first match under Roberto Martinez to Spain in August 2016 and is unbeaten in 24 games since (19 wins).
Kevin De Bruyne’s Role
The fortunes of Belgium, and the contributions of Kevin De Bruyne, have risen in tandem since the Red Devils fell behind Japan, 2-0, in the round of 16. Facing elimination and needing goals, Roberto Martinez sent on Marouane Fellaini in a defensive midfielder role — to jeers on social media — and pushed De Bruyne forward into the more attacking role he is accustomed to playing, and prefers. The result was a come-from-behind victory, and the change became the plan from the start against Brazil, leading to a goal from De Bruyne and the win that sent the Belgians to St. Petersburg.
“My role changes all the time,” De Bruyne said Monday, adding, “For the semifinal, it can change; I don’t know yet. But I think that’s what it’s going to be.”
How They Got Here
Belgium is the only team left in the field with five victories in this summer’s World Cup. France tied Denmark in the group stage, and England lost to Belgium there. Croatia has left the field feeling like winners in every game, but it advanced on two straight penalty-kick shootouts, but those were merely tiebreakers: Both games were officially recorded as draws.
France vs. Belgium: The Goals
France has scored nine goals and surrendered three. Belgium has scored 14, boosted by big wins over Panama (3-0) and Tunisia (5-2) in the group stage, but it hasn’t been nearly as stingy at the back. It has surrendered five goals in Russia.
Thierry Henry on the Other Side
The presence of the former France star Thierry Henry on the Belgium bench tonight will be a bit awkward. Henry was a teammate with Deschamps on their country’s World Cup-winning team in 1998. Now in the early stages of a coaching career, he is working as an assistant to Belgium’s manager, Roberto Martinez. “I was lucky to play with him for two years in the French team,” said Hugo Lloris. “It is true that it is a little bit peculiar to see him with the Belgian team, but that’s his career and that’s how he’s learning his future career. I think his heart will be split tomorrow, because through everything he remains French.”
How Belgium Was Built
Some see Belgium’s ride to the semifinals as a validation of the way it altered its development system and groomed its current generation of players. As with the reboots of Germany and Spain before it, Belgium’s transformation is now deemed — by some — as worthy of study, and copy. But the presence of Belgium, Croatia, France and England here, Rory Smith writes, is a reminder to be careful trying to replicate any model in a different country.
Belgium’s Attack vs. France’s Defense
Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne may be the best attacking trio left in the tournament, and they have asked serious questions of every team in the knockouts. France’s ability to disrupt them before they get into dangerous positions will go a long way to keeping them from imposing themselves on the match today. That role often goes to N’Golo Kanté, a tireless worker. But he will need some help from Paul Pogba and another strong performance from the center-back pair of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti today; stopping Belgium will not be a one-man job.
Can Belgium Slow Mbappé and Griezmann?
Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann will pose an attacking test as fearsome as the one Belgium recently passed against Brazil. Belgium did that with some sturdy play from Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel in midfield, and France should expect a bit more of the same today.
France vs. Belgium Top Story Lines
• So many of the matchups today will be familiar to regular watchers of the Premier League: N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba of France vs. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne of Belgium in the midfield; goalkeeper Hugo Lloris trying to fend off striker Romelu Lukaku; Olivier Giroud potentially challenging for headers against Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. But the club affiliations are blurred today as well: Tottenham, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Paris St.-Germain, Monaco and Barcelona all have players on both sides of this semifinal.
• “I think we know them very well,” France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said. “But they know us very well.” Said Manager Didier Deschamps: “It’s an advantage on both sides. They can appreciate each other. But during the match, everyone will be on his own side.”
• Belgium is without Thomas Meunier, an important (but not necessarily flashy) member of its team. He picked up his second yellow card against Brazil and is suspended. France gets back Blaise Matuidi after he served his own yellow-card ban in the quarterfinals.
• Tottenham Hotspur has as many players left in the World Cup (nine) as the entire Bundesliga and one more than Italy’s Serie A. Four players from Spurs could see action today: Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Mousa Dembélé for Belgium, and Hugo Lloris for France. Belgium’s Nacer Chadli also spent time at Spurs.
• France won the World Cup in 1998, and returned to the final in 2006. Belgium is in the semifinals for only the second time; it lost at this stage in 1986.
• Today’s winner faces the England-Croatia winner in Sunday’s final in Moscow. The loser can stay in St. Petersburg, which will host the third-place match on Saturday.
• France is the favorite to advance to the final, but it’s very close: The bookmakers’ odds translate into France being about 54 percent likely winner. The bookies have lots of other opinions too: The over/under is 2.5 goals. On corners it’s 10. The most likely player to score the first goal is Antoine Griezmann of France (6-1), followed by Romelu Lukaku of Belgium (7-1) and Kylian Mbappe of France (8-1).
Some Pregame Reading
• France’s fresh-faced right back, Benjamin Pavard, has had a strong tournament and scored a wonderful goal against Argentina. But his part of the field is where Belgium’s Eden Hazard likes to work, and that could pose his biggest test yet.
• Nearly half — 40 of 92 — of the players left in the World Cup play for Premier League clubs. Jonathan Lieuw looks at what that means, why people shouldn’t give the league too much credit just yet.
• Shameless flattery, dodgy fluency and warm ovations: Sarah Lyall wrote about the glorious stew and grand theater that is the World Cup press conference.
• Why does every player in the World Cup bring his hands to his head after a near miss? It turns out there’s a psychological explanation.