The semi-finals finds four squads left competing for the World Cup championship. With Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, and Germany in 2014, this year’s winner will once again come from UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). The recent European dominance extends past just the championship: including this year, 7 of the last 8 finalists and 13 of the last 16 semifinalists will have been from Europe. Why has Europe risen to such domination? The best theory seems to be the amount of money flowing through the European soccer leagues. The major European leagues, the English Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A, make and spend huge amounts of money, bring in the best players in the world, and have the leading youth development programs. Even the lesser European leagues are awash in money. When you can pay and develop the best talent, you are a step up on other countries and leagues.
This World Cup has already seen a number of surprises. The reigning champions and #1 ranked team, Germany, failed to advance out of the group stage. The #2 ranked Brazilian squad got bounced in the quarterfinals. 70th ranked Russia made a run all the way to the quarterfinals. We are now left with 3rd ranked Belgium, 7th ranked France, 12th ranked England and 20th ranked Croatia. Here’s what to look for in the semi-final match-ups.
France vs. Belgium
France got here by a 2-0 victory over a Uruguayan team playing without star forward Edinson Cavani. Except for giving up three goals to Argentina in the round of 16, the French defense has been stalwart, allowing only one other goal. They feature great speed on offense with Kilian Mbappe and Paul Pogba and have Antoine Griezmann patrolling and controlling the midfield. France has proven to be one of the most complete teams in the tournament.
Belgium was one of the hottest teams coming into the Cup and continued that streak through group play. In the knockout rounds though, Belgian form has been a bit confounding. Facing a surprising Japanese team in the round of 16, Belgium fell behind 2-0, before a furious three goal rally in the final 25 minutes got them through. As underdogs against the highly skilled Brazilians, the Belgians quick attacks netted two first half goals which held up for the win. Belgium is the highest ranked team left, but has shown some inconsistency in the knockout games.
France and Belgium should prove to be a good game to watch. Both defenses are good and both offenses have excellent creators, Griezmann for the French and Eden Hazard for the Belgians. However, the Belgian defense has shown some vulnerability to especially fast attackers and France has the speed to take advantage of that. Look for the French to try to play some through balls or over the top balls that Mbappe can run onto. Belgium will look to a more patient buildup with Hazard delivering balls to Romelu Lukaku to cross into the box, where they have been effective using their height. This game will be a tight one and it would not be surprising if it came down to penalty kicks. I like the French speed to prevail in the end.
Croatia vs. England
For the first time since the Golden Generation squad of 1998, Croatia returns to the semi-finals by outlasting Russia on penalty kicks. After they marched through group play, including a surprisingly dominant upset of Argentina, Croatia has squeaked through knockout round play on penalty kicks in both games. Still, Croatia showed great resilience in those games after missing a penalty kick late in the round of 16 game and giving up a late equalizer in the quarter-final game.
England is the sole group stage 2nd place finisher to get this far in the tourney. The English, despite a history of failure at PKs, overcame it to edge out Colombia in the round of 16, before taking apart Sweden in the quarterfinals, thanks in part to some incredible goalkeeping by Jordan Pickford. The Sweden game was their best showing against quality competition and the English seem to be rounding into form at the right time.
The Croatia-England game should be an interesting one. Both teams like to control the midfield with Croatian star Luka Modric a master at creating scoring opportunities while the English are among the best at scoring off of set pieces. Ball possession or the ability to deal with the lack of it may prove to be the difference. Both teams have the possession battle in all of their games but one. In the one game where the English lost the ball control battle, they lost to Belgium. The Croatians, on the other hand, lost the possession battle against Argentina, but did not let that faze them and used their opportunities to cruise to a 3-0 win. This is further evidence of the resilience that Croatia has shown throughout. I think this resilience proves to be the difference with Croatia edging out England.