Belgium host France at the King Baudouin Stadium this Wednesday in an international friendly with the tables having turned dramatically since the pair last met in a friendly in 2011. The match finished goalless, but prior to that the two sides had not met since 2004 when Les Bleus won 2-0 in Belgium.
On Wednesday, France will enter the match 13 places behind Les Diables Rouges in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola world rankings. The match gives both a chance to regroup ahead of key upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Aside from that it bears little meaning for both sides apart from a traditional rivalry given their geographic proximity.
Belgium are top of Group A having dropped just two points so far in qualifying. Currently, they are three points clear of second placed Croatia, and they are gearing up for double-header with Scotland and Serbia.
France are in a less favourable position. Trailing World and European champions Spain by one point in Group I, Didier Deschamps’ side have played La Furia Roja twice already. If French World Cup qualification is to be secured, it will almost certainly come through the playoffs.
Deschamps is currently suffering because he is in charge of a generation of players that is stagnating; the promising young French talent too young to completely overhaul the current set-up. His opposite number Marc Wilmots is facing exactly the opposite problem. If anything, he has too much talent to choose from at present.
Although there is nothing riding on the game, Belgium v France will at least boast some of Europe’s best young talents.
Here are five battles to watch in the clash.
A few years ago, this would have been a match-up made in heaven. Even at club level this duel could be enticing. But on the international stage, forget it.
For some time, Karim Benzema has not been the same player that we see playing for Real Madrid when he pulls on French colours. With a goal drought stretching over 1000 minutes of play for Les Bleus, Vincent Kompany would appear to have won this battle before it even starts, despite his recent fitness issues.
Even if paired alongside the veteran Daniel van Buyten, who looked shaky in Bayern Munich’s first game of the season against Borussia Dortmund in the German Super Cup, Kompany should have too much for Benzema.
Verdict: Vincent Kompany.
Hannover 96 left back Sébastien Pocognoli is believed to be starting the match for Marc Wilmot’s side on Wednesday. If so, France could have some joy down the right side where they could boast any one of a number of talents.
Franck Ribery is back in the fold after missing Les Bleus’ tour of South America in the summer because of his Bayern Munich commitments. Dimitri Payet has hit the ground running for Marseille in Ligue 1 this season after last year’s success and was involved in that tour. Teammate Mathieu Valbuena is also included and could feature for the French.
Whoever is picked will arguably fancy themselves over Pocognoli, with the full back positions arguably Belgium’s main weakness.
Verdict: France to have the beating of Belgium out wide.
Geoffrey Kondogbia’s exceptional rise to prominence continues as he makes a first appearance in the French national team. Should he play, the Sevilla man’s tussle with Zenit St Petersburg’s Axel Witsel in the centre of midfield will be an intriguing part of this clash.
The Belgian has the experience, but Kondogbia’s raw power and excellent technical ability has made him one of Europe’s most talked about prospects in no time at all. Equally, it will be interesting to see how Saint-Etienne’s Josuha Guilavogui fares if he is given the nod ahead of Kondogbia.
The former RC Lens man is the first member of the under-20 World Cup-winning squad to make the step up to the senior side and could be the prelude to more potential stars doing the same.
Verdict: Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini’s experience to outweigh the youthful exuberance of Geoffrey Kondogbia and/or Josuha Guilavogui.
Should he play, Les Bleus will know all about Eden Hazard from his time with Lille. One of Belgium’s danger men, the 22-year-old will be a handful for the French defence, and he is also part of the reason Deschamps has probably included former Standard Liege defender Eliaquim Mangala.
Not only is the 22-year-old a very bright prospect for the French, he is also probably the most in-tune with the Belgian players and will be an important source of information ahead of the match. His ability to stop Hazard’s penetrating runs and link-up with Christian Benteke will be key to France keeping the goals out.
If they can do that, Deschamps will be confident his side can beat Belgians by exposing their defence.
Given the players available for selection though, and those who will be deployed out wide, Hazard will fancy his chances anywhere across the front line.
Verdict: Eden Hazard.
Perhaps the most telling battle on the pitch though will be one that will should be replicated on the opening weekend of the English Premier League. Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke will no doubt face Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny at some point during the game.
The Frenchman has emerged as one of the best defenders in world football with the Belgian a rapidly rising star after a breakout season last year. Benteke has been in good form in preseason for Villa but he has struggled to replicate his stellar showings domestically onto the international stage, despite scoring six times in 14 appearances.
Koscielny should be able to handle the 22-year-old individually, but France’s inability to cope with Belgium elsewhere could mean that the Belgian will get chances.
Verdict: Christian Benteke.