Belgium v France can arguably be considered the final of the tournament. Belgium has eliminated Brazil and were resilient in their comeback again Japan. France has been dominant with a solid mix of youth and experienced European club-talented players. How do both teams match-up against each other? Let’s preview their chances and see who has the best chance to move forward
What makes Belgium dangerous is their ability to win games They dominated Japan in possession and shots, but needed to come back from down 2-0 to advance. Their resiliency set up a quarterfinal match-up with Brazil. They made changes to their starting XI to counter Brazil, and their strategy paid off in a 2-1 win.
Belgium will have to play a similar style to beat France and advance to Sunday's final. Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba are France’s key threats up top - Belgium needs to keep them at bay and win the battle in the midfield to move on. Belgium also needs to do work offensively. They only had three shots on target against Brazil, although they managed to score twice. The French backline is young and capable of making mistakes; finishing from Lukaku and its other attacking players must be an area of focus.
France has been waiting for this moment since 2006. It's their first semi-final since finishing as the runner-up in the 2006 tournament. Their generational talent is just as important as Belgium’s, and this won't be the last World Cup we see with this youthful squad together.
Olivier Giroud, Griezmann, Mbappe, and Pogba have been pivotal for the French attack. 19-year-old Mbappe has been the darling of the tournament; just think, he'll be in his peak the next two World Cups. His runs have been nightmare for defenders who can’t seem to deal with his speed. Pogba and Griezmann have also demonstrated their leadership, controlling the tempo of the game. They were the more accurate team in terms of passing against Uruguay last round, controlling a large portion of the ball. They didn't score as frequently against a more disciplined Uruguay team than they did against Argentina, but they did show they can beat you on the ground or in the air, with a nice header from Raphael Varane.
Les Bleus seems confident they can contain Hazard in a similar fashion they did to Lionel Messi. This is not the same squad as Argentina however. Belgium has French legend Thierry Henry on its bench creating an intriguing match-up and is highly disciplined and deadly on counters. France will have to be in top form to beat this Belgium side who will seek to reach their first ever final.
Prediction: France 3 - 1 Belgium
After a couple of weeks hiatus, the first leg of the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League finally got underway. We had four grand matchups on the cards. Two which featured two Spanish teams taking on Italian sides along with a matchup of two English squads while Bayern faced off against underdogs Sevilla. All four first legs provided us with some top entertainment while also leaving some questions to be answered for the second leg next week. Here are some takeaways from the first leg.
Real keep rolling
Like I’ve continued to say after each Real Madrid victory in the Champions League so far, they continue to play in Super Saiyan form in the Champions League. Forget what they are doing in La Liga but Real Madrid are flying in Europe. It was a dominant performance by Los Blancos as they thrashed Juventus and gave Gigi Buffon even more nightmares. Although Juventus controlled much of the possession and at most times much of the game, it was Real Madrid who generated the most chances and struck. They got off to a quick start as Juventus failed to mark Ronaldo in the box and we all know what happens if he gets a free chance. Just like that Juventus conceded an away goal. Things only got worse for Juventus as the game went on. Despite seeming to control the tempo of the game, they failed to generate more than one A+ chance. It was off a free kick and it was brilliantly saved by Keylor Navas.
Then the game stopped still as Ronaldo scored arguably one of his most brilliant goals of his career. It was a beautiful bicycle kick and it came off one of the wackiest sequences. A mistake between Giorgio Chiellini and Buffon led to Ronaldo almost scored on an open net but had his angle cut off by Buffon. Then Lucas Vazquez had his shot saved by Buffon before it fell to Dani Carvajal, who then lobbed up a cross to Ronaldo and the rest was history. Marcelo then added a third and added to the misery for Juventus.
Despite it being only the first leg, you have the feeling that this tie is already over. With 3 away goals and already in superstar form, Real Madrid are running away with this tie.
Barcelona and Bayern endure shaky starts to get results
While Real Madrid ran away, Barcelona and Bayern stumbled out of the gate at the beginning of their first legs. Both Bayern and Barcelona had slow starts to begin and looked off from the get go. Things got worse for the Bavarians as Sevilla scored a goal to get things going. At least for the Catalans, they got an own goal to start things off. Despite both of them winning in the first leg, it wasn’t the most convincing performances. Both teams relied on own goals and mistakes from the defenses. They were really shaky performances.
These first legs are tough pills to swallow for both Roma and Sevilla. Both teams played hard, especially the Italians who had two valid penalty shouts not called. The two losing sides had a combined 3 own goals and against the giants like Bayern and Barca, you can’t afford mistakes like that.
Man City’s meltdown
The biggest shock of the first leg results was at Anfield where Liverpool ran riot on Manchester City. At the end of the day, it was a 3-0 destruction of Pep Guardiola’s team and made Man City look average. Goals from Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Mane in the first 30 minutes bamboozled the Citizens and had Anfield rocking.
Guardiola made some questionable decisions with this lineup, playing a midfielder like Kevin De Bruyne on the right wing. It left City’s midfield open and add that to the centre back pairing of Kompany and LaPorte, Liverpool attackers had a field day. They looked out of sorts and this rock solid team was smashed to pieces. Guardiola ended up switching KDB back into the midfield but it was too little too late. It also hurts Manchester City that they failed to score an away goal. Now they have to score 4 goals in the Etihad, which sets up for a crazy attacking second leg. There will be plenty of action next week.
This seemed like a perfect pairing for Liverpool. They love to counterattack and against a team which controls possession, this seemed like a matchup where Liverpool could expose City. But nobody expected them to do something like this.
Although it’s only February, the Premier League title race is all but over. Just take a look at the standings: while seven points separate second place and fifth place, a whopping 13 points is the gap between table leaders Manchester City and second place Manchester United. City are running away with the league and it’s not even close. They are clearly the best team in England and have established themselves as a Champions League contender. Pep Guardiola’s side is one of the top three in Europe, if not the best, and are the cream of the crop in terms of quality.
City bolsters a team which is absolutely trashing their opponents, registering a goal difference of 55 thus far in league play, 22 higher than Manchester United. Although they aren’t so ruthlessly killing off their opponents like they did in the opening stages of the Premier League, City are still running like a well oiled machine.
Now there are a lot of different parts to this seemingly unstoppable City train. One major part has been Guardiola and his tactics. Another part has been the fullbacks and their ability to push up the pitch and overload opposing defenses. It’s also the growth of players like John Stones and the arrival of Emerson. But an even bigger, if not the biggest part of Manchester City’s success has been their midfield.
The trio of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, and Fernandinho have been spectacular this season and have been the cog which puts everything together for the Citizens. All three of them have been world class this season and each of them has a unique role within the team. Each player brings their own strengths and does what they are needed to. Each play a unique part in the dazzling display of City football.
Out of the trio, Fernandinho is the least attacking minded and is the one who is usually sitting back in front of the back line. He’s a destroyer and is responsible with helping in breaking up opposing counter attacks. Fernandinho proves another resistance to goal in the rare times City opponents gain possession. Although they have played well at the back, the City defense is prone to silly mistakes and Fernandinho is the one who helps clean it up. Fernandinho’s average tackles per game tally of 1.9 is one of the highest totals on this City team. Actually, if you only factor in City players who have played most of the season (25 games or more), his average is the top spot on the team. He’s been the perfect player to stay in front of the backline of Manchester City while also offering some offensive support when needed to.
After coming back to the Premier League, Kevin De Bruyne has showed that Chelsea made a huge mistake by selling him off. He’s been one of the best midfielders in all of Europe, forget just England. KDB has been on fire this season, registering 7 goals and 11 assists in just 26 appearances. If Manchester City’s deadly attack could be compared to a basketball team, De Bruyne would be the do-it-all small forward. Registering a pass success percentage of 83.4%, De Bruyne has shown the precision to pick out teammates in key areas along with being the link between the defense and offense. When Manchester City are in attack, he has been the man in control and dictates where the play flows. He’s also shown to be Manchester City’s set piece specialist, delivering some delicious crosses off set piece plays. In the past two years Kevin De Bruyne has taken the leap from young starlet to a top five player in the world. He’s been the catalyst to City’s attack while also being able to track back on defense. Showing defensive capabilities alongside players like Fernandinho and Silva are very important as KDB is able to give a little bit of everything in all parts of the field. He isn’t a prototypical box to box midfielder and that’s perfectly fine. In Guardiola’s system he doesn’t need to be. Kevin De Bruyne has been Manchester City’s best player this season and it’s not even close.
But while KDB might be their best player, David Silva is their most important midfielder and one on the pitch. If De Bruyne is small forward, Silva is the flashy point guard who is able to shift into the lane while also finding his teammates for easy scores. A wizard with a dynamite left foot, Silva is still going strong at age 32 and although his work rate isn’t exactly what it used to be, he’s still a huge offensive threat. He’s had an ok season in terms of stats, scoring 5 goals and dishing out 8 assists but his influence on this team is as important as ever. If KDB is the link between offense and defense, Silva is the architect to a lot of soul crushing City goals. His on the dot passing and ability to split defenses with timely runs has helped Manchester City take an even bigger leap offensively. He’s been able to find wingers like Sane and Sterling, who are converting more, for easier goals than years past. It’s been great to watch for anyone who loves attacking football. Silva’s health might not be on his side but when he’s in the City XI, they are exponentially better.
After a first year where he had to sort everything out, Pep Guardiola has got this City team working as one and under his control. He’s got everything figured out and City are rolling everyone in sight. A lot of it has been due to his midfield trio and the work they are able to put it. If all three are able to stay healthy, City go from really good to great and it could mean a lot as they progress further into the Champions League.