Kylian Mbappe will be one of France's dangermen in the World Cup semi-final against Belgium
Saint Petersburg (AFP) - France will unleash the attacking talents of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann against Eden Hazard’s gifted Belgium side on Tuesday with a place in the World Cup final at stake.
The semi-final matchup of the European neighbours in Saint Petersburg promises to be full of excitement as France target a return to the final for the first time since a Zinedine Zidane-led team did so in Germany in 2006.
Belgium are seeking to break new ground by reaching the final for the first time in their history.
The victors will face the winners of Wednesday’s other semi-final between Croatia and England at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.
With Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings and Romelu Lukaku providing the firepower, Belgium beat Neymar’s Brazil in the quarter-finals.
But their secret weapon against France could be the presence in the Belgian dugout of Thierry Henry, one of the greatest French players in history.
Eden Hazard will be one of Belgium's main attacking threats in the World Cup semi-final against France
Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Henry was part of the French squad that won the World Cup on home soil 20 years ago and played 123 times for his country, scoring 51 times.
As Roberto Martinez’s assistant, it is his job to help halt the run of his home nation.
Martinez explained how Henry offered something other members of the former Everton manager’s staff could not.
“What we didn’t have was international experience, the know-how of winning a World Cup, the know-how of being a footballer, how you are expected to perform in front of the world and knowing how you feel in those moments,” the Spaniard said.
De Bruyne said Henry had talked little about his feelings.
“Perhaps he will sing the Marseillaise (before the game), which I find normal,” De Bruyne said.
“It might be a bit difficult for him but he’s working for Belgium now, he wants us to win.”
France great Thierry Henry is Belgium's assistant coach
Belgium’s confidence will be high after they knocked out Brazil in the quarter-finals and they are the only team to have won all their matches in Russia, top-scoring with 14 goals.
Didier Deschamps’ France side failed to fire in their group matches but burst into life in the 4-3 demolition of Argentina as Mbappe overshadowed Lionel Messi and confirmed his arrival as a new superstar of the game.
The French then showed their steel in the 2-0 disposal of Uruguay in the quarter-finals.
France are favourites because of their mix of youth and experience allied to tournament nous after they reached the Euro 2016 final.
- ‘Keep making history’ -
England coach Gareth Southgate said he had told his players to carry on making history when they face Croatia on Wednesday in England’s first semi-final since 1990.
“We were never quite sure how far this team could go and the age of the players, the improvement in the players and the hunger in the players has been apparent for everyone to see,” Southgate said.
“We have made several pieces of history… so we are looking to keep breaking those barriers down. It’s really been an enjoyable journey and we want to keep it going.”
He suggested that with England deeply divided over the issue of leaving the European Union, and currently plunged into a political crisis, his team was playing an important role in giving people something to smile about.
“Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of its unity,” said Southgate, saying the players had been able to give England supporters “positive experiences”.
“We can feel the energy and the support from home and it’s a very special feeling and a privilege for us.”
Captain Harry Kane is leading England’s charge with six goals so far, putting him top in the race for the Golden Boot. Lukaku is on four goals and Griezmann and Mbappe have three each.
Luka Modric (left) could make the difference for Croatia while Harry Kane is the World Cup's leading scorer with six goals
Despite England being taken over by football fever, Wimbledon chiefs say the men’s final on Sunday will start at its traditional time even if it clashes with a possible appearance of the national team in the World Cup final.
However, they say they will have no objection if the Centre Court crowd want to take sneak peeks of the action from Moscow on their phones.
Croatia, who have matched the achievements of their 1998 team in reaching the last four, can count on Real Madrid’s midfield talisman Luka Modric, but his teammate Andrej Kramaric says England’s lack of superstars is what makes them a cohesive unit.
“England was one of the favourites for me for the tournament because they have a young and hungry team with no big, international stars, so it won’t be easy for us,” he admitted.
Croatia could well be battling fatigue and injuries after a strength-sapping penalty shootout to edge out host nation Russia on Saturday.