The 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-finals begin on Tuesday, and the first one up is France vs. Belgium. It's a contest so stacked with quality it's more befitting of a final, but given they can be quite cagey affairs, perhaps it's best this one's served up a round early.
Both sides won their groups with relative ease and have taken down big names en route to this point—France dismissing Argentina and Uruguay, Belgium battling past Japan before lighting up Brazil. Both combine sparkling attacking talent with stern, mean defensive play and a physical edge in midfield.
There's also an added element of spice due to the two nations' status as neighbours, plus some boundary crossovers present in the teams.
France and Belgium border one another, with the French city of Lille almost bridging the divide. Belgian forward Eden Hazard played his formative years of football there, while Thierry Henry—a World Cup winner with France in 1998—is on Belgium's coaching staff.
Story So Far: France
France began this World Cup slowly, with Didier Deschamps coming under scrutiny for the stumbling nature of their early play, but as soon as the knockout rounds started they more than kicked into gear. Their 4-3 win over Argentina was one-sided, with the scoreline flattering the South Americans, and their 2-0 win over Uruguay was professional, controlled and cool.
They look their best when allowed to counter-attack; Argentina naively let them do so, taking 60 per cent of the possession and allowing Kylian Mbappe to run full speed at Javier Mascherano, Marcos Rojo and Nicolas Tagliafico.
The result was disastrous. Mbappe bagged two goals, won a converted penalty and a free-kick that struck the bar.
Samuel Umtiti's bizarre handball against Australia aside, the defence has looked good. Raphael Varane is playing well, as is Lucas Hernandez, while Benjamin Pavard's honest approach at right-back has at least been largely error-free.
France's best player this tournament has been N'Golo Kante, who has swept up and destroyed in midfield to great effect, rarely putting a foot wrong. Giving a solid base, he's allowed Paul Pogba to express himself and make the difference in several games.
Olivier Giroud has been quietly effective in this tournament despite not yet scoring. His link-up play and movements have unlocked the best in this France attack, while you feel there's still a lot more to come from Antoine Griezmann; he's scored three and assisted one, but he's yet to dominate a game.
Story So Far: Belgium
Belgium's start to the tournament was much more assertive than France's, though they were awarded the soft task of playing Panama—arguably the worst team in the tournament—first up.
Tunisia were slain next, then England's reserve charges were put away by Belgium's own B-team, meaning their first genuine wobble came as late as the round of 16, where they went two down to Japan and were forced to produce the finest comeback of the tournament, bagging three goals in the final 30 minutes.
Up to that point the Red Devils had been fairly easy to read: They used a 3-4-3 formation with Kevin De Bruyne in the centre, Romelu Lukaku up front and Eden Hazard off the left. For the quarter-final against Brazil, though, Roberto Martinez rolled the tactical dice, moving De Bruyne into a false-nine role and playing Lukaku off the right.
It was a masterstroke. Lukaku took advantage of the gaps Marcelo left and dipped inward to exploit Fernandinho, while De Bruyne and Hazard roamed on the counter-attack. The formation was as much 4-3-3 as it was 3-4-3, with Nacer Chadli's role on the left somewhat ambiguous.
Thibaut Courtois and Toby Alderweireld have been consistent pillars at the back for Belgium, while Jan Vertonghen had been superb up until an error against Japan. It's not just attacking strength the Red Devils have offered; they have shown defensive solidity too.
Flashpoint 1: Belgium in Trouble with Thomas Meunier Suspended?
Right-wing-back Meunier has had a fantastic tournament. Not only has he been largely sound defensively, his attacking runs have also been integral to some of Belgium's most sweeping, impressive counter-attacking moves.
He's suspended for the semi-final and needs replacing. Who will replace him? There is no natural stand-in for him in the squad; when Belgium's reserves got a run-out in the third group game Adnan Januzaj played his position, and it seems unlikely he'd feature against France.
Perhaps Chadli swaps the left for the right. His physicality might work nicely against presumed opponent Blaise Matuidi on that flank, and given France play without a proper left-sided presence in attack he might not be the liability many fear. He's also right-footed, so that's his natural side.
But that would mean either Yannick Carrasco returning to left-wing-back—an alarming prospect given his struggles against Panama, Tunisia and Japan, plus the fact he would be up against Mbappe—or Belgium revert to a flat defensive four and trust Vertonghen to nullify Mbappe. Failing that, perhaps Januzaj does get involved again on one of the two flanks.
There's no complete fix here. Meunier's absence creates a weakness in Belgium's formation, and it's up to Martinez to figure out the best way to bury it or hide it.
Flashpoint 2: Who Earns the Right to Play on the Counter?
With both sides showing their best from a counter-attacking position, they will each attempt to earn the right to play in that way. The way to do this, usually, is to score an early goal, allowing you to sit off a little with a lead in-hand.
It could create a frantic opening 10-15 minutes as both managers hunt that opening strike. For Belgium, it feels particularly important given their issue at full-back/wing-back and given what Mbappe did to Argentina with space to run into.
If you're chasing the game and leaving spaces against Les Bleus, the scoreline could get ugly, fast. If Pogba finds room behind the defensive line to aim long passes into, and Griezmann can find a lane to run into, they'll split you apart in seconds. If that fails, Mbappe will just sprint past everyone instead.
If France fall behind and are forced to commit more resources forward, the danger of the Hazard-Lukaku-De Bruyne counter-attack rears its head. Martinez could start with a more standard alignment, Lukaku as the centre-forward, but then switch to the one used against Brazil if they go a goal ahead.
At that point you're nailing all of your hopes to Kante's mast, hopeful that he can patrol the halfway line, kill the attacks in their infancy and do a much better job than Fernandinho managed in the quarter-final.
Both sides will respect each other's attacking qualities. Both sides will at least partially fear what the other can do if given room to play in. No early breakthrough could lead to a retreat from both sides, and from there the Plan Bs might come into play: Marouane Fellaini headers, long shots and screamers from defenders you'd never back to score. We've already seen all of those so far.
All statistics via WhoScored.com