Despite France and Belgium having some of the world’s best players, the big talk ahead of Tuesday’s World Cup semi-final was an assistant coach
Kashinath Bhattacharjee, Saint Petersburg
France appears to be more concerned over whether Thierry Henry will sing the French national anthem or not rather than Les Bleus facing Belgium in a World Cup semifinal match on Tuesday at the Saint Petersburg Arena.
However, is there any place of such emotion in professional football than a World Cup? Similar things happened when Zico was the coach of the Japanese national football team and Japan had to play against Brazil in the 2005 Confederations Cup and World Cup a year later . Zico had no hesitation in saying that he would definitely sing the national anthem since he had been doing so since birth. But after that, he would do everything possible to deny Brazil a victory.
Henry was not available for comment. He has been avoiding the press since his appointment in 2017 as assistant to Roberto Martinez, the Head Coach of Belgium. It was expected that he would not come, especially ahead of such a delicate clash. But both the players and the coaches – Hugo Lloris and Kevin de Bruyne, Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez – were asked to comment on Henry’s presence on the Belgium bench.
Neither Kylian Mbappe nor Eden Hazard were in such detailed discussion as Henry. Perhaps, the Arsenal legend was the first assistant manager of a side in a World Cup who caused so much debate in the rival camp.
Leave Henry aside, this should be the closest match of the World Cup after second-ranked Brazil met third-ranked Belgium in the quarter-finals. Squad-wise, these two have so many things in common. Both have good goalkeepers in Lloris and Thibaut Courtois, good defensive pairs in Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti for France and Vincent Kompany and Toby Alderweireld for Belgium.
If France have Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante in midfield, Belgium will be more than ready to throw more challenges in the middle of the pitch with Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel. As a striker, Romelu Lukaku has excelled for Belgium, but Olivier Giroud succeeded in finding space for Antoine Griezmann and Mbappe.
In terms of strategy, Belgium has shown flexibility in Russia while Deschamps is reluctant to change his style of football. However, in both the official press conferences, the coaches stressed more on ‘collective efforts’ rather than concentrating on individual talents available. Mbappe’s youth and de Bruyne’s skills were particularly discussed.
There is almost nothing between these two teams. The only thing is that France continues to try and play the same style while Belgium can surprise them strategically again after doing so against Brazil when Martinez tried to defend with a 3-4-3 while going for the attack with a 4-2-1-3.
There were four French stars absent from the training session on Monday. Umtiti, Kante, Mbappe and Pavard missed out to lead to speculation while Belgium had almost their full squad available. Hazard and his team will not miss anyone through injury and suspension while Blaise Matuidi will return for the 1998 champions.
Both the teams are yet to go to penalties to win any of their knockout matches. Can this one go the full distance?