Hard to believe a little more than three weeks ago, the action was just starting. Now it’s winding down with the biggest action of all getting closer and closer. But before we can have the final on Sunday the 15th, we need the semifinals to decide the two that qualify. In both of the semifinals we’ll have won team that won a World Cup in the past and another team whose best result ever was making it to a past semifinal. All four teams are from European countries and and four never made it past the quarterfinals at the last World Cup. This will be the first World Cup since 1966 that will have a completely different Top 4 from the last.
Here I will do my review of the teams and also make my predictions. I hope I do better here than when I predicted in 2014. And to think I thought Brazil would win over Germany in 2014! After Germany delivered their ‘7-up,’ I sure felt dumb!
Without further ado, here’s a look at the four teams that will be in the semifinals and my prediction for each one:
SEMIFINAL #1 – FRANCE vs. BELGIUM
France and Belgium have played each other 73 times. France won 24 times, Belgium won 30 times, and 19 were draws. At the World Cup, France faced Belgium only twice in a 1938 match and 1986 in the match for 3rd place, and France won both times.
Team By Team Analysis:
France: The current French team is an example of a team that arose from the ‘ruins’ of football. Some of you may remember the 2010 World Cup. If it was not France’s worst-ever performance, it was France’s hardest World Cup trip ever. The trip started on controversy as they had qualified thanks to a fist-aided goal from Thierry Henry in their qualifying playoff match against Ireland. Then at the World Cup 2010, striker Nicolas Anelka was fired from the team after an obscenity-laden dispute with manager Raymond Domenech. A boycott of training from players in response and a lecture from the French sports minister paved the way for France’s eventual loss in their last game. The team returned home in disgrace and the president of the FFF resigned, as did coach Domenech. It would be another six years for Domenech to accept another coaching job.
What happened after would be quite the rebound. They would continue to have difficulty at Euro 2012 by going out in the quarterfinals to Spain 2-0. Then Dider Deschamps, who was part of France’s World Cup-winning team of 1998, assumed the position of head coach and would give France quite the turn-around. The turnaround however was not an overnight success, but more of steady progression. It started at the 2014 world Cup where France bowed out at the quarterfinals after losing 1-0 to Germany, but promise was noticed. The team gave an improved showing of play and Paul Pogba was named Top Young Player of the Cup. Then came Euro 2016 which France was host nation. Until France lost in the final to Portugal 1-0 in extra time, France had delivered the best show of teamwork during the tournament and had the top scorer with Antoine Griezman scoring 6 goals. Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet also scored 3 goals of their own.
Excellence has continued for Les Bleus here at the World Cup and they look as one of the teams that can best win the Cup. Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann have three goals each. On top of that, they only conceded four goals. They’ve reached the Last 4 for only their sixth time. France has shown a lot of strength and a lot of team unity. There’s even talk Mbappe may win the Young Player award. It’s hard to pinpoint a mistake this last while. However they were rather conservative in the group stage. They did come alive in a big way in the knockout round but they did concede three goals against Argentina. They were lucky they delivered four. They will be facing a Belgian team that has become one of the more exciting teams of the Cup and will need to deliver.
Belgium: Belgium is another example of a team that took a long time to develop. This is only Belgium’s 13th World Cup but many are already calling this team the best Red Devils ever.
In the past, Belgium would only go as far as the group Stage or 1st round at the World Cup. Success for Belgium would come starting in the 1980’s when they made it past the opening stage for the first time in 1982 and then to the semifinals for the first time ever in 1986. Their 4th place finish in 1986 ranks currently as Belgium’s best World Cup finish ever. However they would struggle to repeat as they would find themselves out in the Round of 16 or the Group Stage during the next four World Cups. Then would come failure to qualify for the World Cups of 2006 and 2010, even after they recruited famed Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. They would even face a rock-bottom 66th ranking on FIFA list in 2009. They would miss qualifying for Euro 2012.
Then came coach Marc Wilmots who himself played for team Belgium at four World Cups. He brought a new sense to the team. He found talent in players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to name a few and was able to get them to perform well as a team function. They’d go through straight wins in World Cup qualifying and would find themselves ranked 11th on FIFA’s list and a heavy favorite to go well at the World Cup. At the 2014 World Cup, they finished in the quarterfinals which was their second-best result ever. 2015 was their breakthrough year as they hit #1 for the first time ever on FIFA’s rankings. However they would face difficulties as they’d only make the quarterfinals at Euro 2016 losing to Wales 3-1. That’s when they then hired Spanish coach Roberto Martinez. The Belgian team has not lost a game since September 2016 and have come to Russia delivering straight wins to the semifinal.
No doubt they have a lot to win their semifinal against France. Their straight wins have shown for it. However they did show weakness during this World Cup. If you remember their Round-Of-16 match against Japan, they were trailing 2-0 into the 2nd half. It wasn’t until the 69th minute Belgium scored and then go on to win 3-2. That was quite a comeback. And a close call. However Belgium can’t afford to pull stunts like those any longer as they’re getting closer and closer to the Cup. They’re en route to becoming the best Belgian team ever and they need to stay en garde.
My Final Verdict:
Okay, you will now want me to make a prediction for this match. I think it will be a case of the match drawing 2-2 with Belgium taking it in a penalty shoot out.
SEMIFINAL #2 – ENGLAND vs. CROATIA
Head-To-Head Stuff: England and Croatia have squared off seven times before. England won four times, Croatia won twice and one was a draw. This will be the first time England and Croatia will play each other in a World Cup game.
Team By Team Analysis:
England: England has always been a subject of frustration. The Three Lions have only won a single World Cup: back in 1966 when they hosted. They have had difficulties whenever they’ve made it to the knockout rounds as they’d frequently expire in the quarterfinals or face elimination when the game ends up in penalty kicks. In fact England has been 0 for 3 at the World Cup for penalty kick matches. Then there are the embarrassments at the two most recent World Cups by expiring to Germany in a highly controversial 4-1 in the Round Of 16 and then failing to advance past the group stage in 2014. It always seemed like the case where the team is full of talent but they just couldn’t play well as a united team. Possibly they didn’t leave their Premier League rivalry at the door?
In 2016, right after they lost to Iceland 2-1 in the Round Of 16, they hired a new coach in Gareth Southgate who played for team England at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. They put in a lot of investment into young rising talent like John Stones and Harry Kane and goaltender Jordan Pickford. The work paid off as England qualified for the World Cup top of their group. Here in Russia, the Three Lions gave their fans a lot of relief as they won two games in group play and qualified for the knockout round. This marked the first time since 2010 they qualified for the knockout round and the first World Cup since 2010 that they won a game. Then came the big test against Columbia. They drew 1-1 against a team that was missing their star James Rodriguez and had to go to penalty kicks. Gulp! Instead they won the shootout 4-3 and their penalty kick curse was finally lifted. This marked their first win of a World Cup knockout match since 2006. The irony being Southgate missed a critical penalty against Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, when England was host! Then their quarterfinal against Sweden turned up a win of 2-0. This would mark only the third time England would reach the Top 4 of a World Cup and the first since 1990.
England bring to the semifinals a lot of top players and a better sense of team unity. Some say they may actually have what it takes to win the Cup. However they could also have what it takes to give it away too. Before their 1-1 draw to Colombia, they lost to Belgium 1-0. They will have to play right and not try to give anything away. Especially since they have a lot of rising talent to work with. A second World Cup has never been so close in a long time.
Croatia: Croatia is another case of a team whose struggle is also paying off here in Russia. Croatia came to be in the early 1990’s after the nation of Yugoslavia fell apart in a brutal civil war. Soon after Croatia declared independence in 1991, they fielded their own national team. However they would have to wait until after the 1994 World Cup for them to play internationally. They played their first World Cup in 1998 and surprised everybody by finishing third, beating out big names like The Netherlands and Germany in the process.
One thing about Croatia’s success in 1998 was that much of it was due to players who used to play for Yugoslavia. After 1998, Croatia worked to develop their own football identity and struggled along the way. They found themselves out in the group stages of 2002 and 2006. Then they’d fail to qualify for 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, they’d undergo two coaching changes. However 2014 showed signs of improvement for Croatian football with the development of talents like Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. The talent was there and they were back on the World Cup scene, but they still had to struggle as they again failed to advance past the group stage in 2014. Further difficulty came when Croatia lost in the Round of 16 at Euro 2016.
Croatia’s struggles were not just on the football field, but in the stands as well. In the past ten years, Croatian fans developed a reputation of being some of the most obnoxious in Europe with incidents like shouting racist taunts, showing off swastikas and throwing flares. The most notable being the game against the Czech Republic during Euro 2016 when flares were thrown onto the field. Sanctions against the Croatian team have come from UEFA and FIFA in the result of the team being fined money, the team losing game points in qualification play, and even the team having to play ‘closed-door’ games for a period of time.
Things have improved greatly for the Croatian team. There has not been a major incident of ‘hooliganism’ since Euro 2016. The team has also played like a strong team unit here in Russia by winning all their group stage games and qualifying for the knockout stage for the first time since their golden year of 1998. In knockout play, the Croatian team have won all their matches in penalty shootouts. This makes it the second time Croatia has made the Top 4 at the World Cup. Croatia has played very well. Especially with a surprise win over Argentina. However they have shown some weak spots in their knockout games. Unique how they’re a team with the least ‘stars’ but have beaten out teams with big names. Their team unity has taken them this far, but they will need it more than ever here in the semis and they have to be on guard if they want to win.
My Final Verdict:
Sure, Croatia has changed a lot since their last game against England in 2009. But England has changed a lot too. The careless mistakes we commonly see from England in major international play are not as present here. I don’t want to rely on sabermetrics completely, but I think England will win 3-1.
And there you have it. My look at the upcoming semifinals and my predictions. We’ll see who the real winners are on Tuesday and Wednesday.