Published: Wed, July 11, 2018
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Kylian Mbappe went full Federation Internationale de Football Association in semi-final victory over Belgium

Kylian Mbappe went full Federation Internationale de Football Association in semi-final victory over Belgium

Both teams have overcome hard South American opposition to reach the last four. On the other side is France, a world soccer titan vying for its third finals appearance in the last six World Cups.

By the time the World Cup semifinals roll around, the time for surprises is over.

"I do not want to denigrate the Belgium team of the time, there were very good players, but at that time, it was France".

France will unleash the attacking talents of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann against Eden Hazard's gifted Belgium side in Saint Petersburg tomorrow (2am Malaysian time) with a place in the World Cup final at stake.

Though a very different player from the elegant Frenchman, the powerfully built Lukaku showed a touch of Henry in his intelligent dummy that allowed the ball to run through to Nacer Chadli to score Belgium's victor in the thrilling come-from-behind 3-2 win over Japan in the last 16.

"It is weird", said Deschamps, "because he is French and that he will be on the bench of the opposition. The French team has less possession, but in defence, the French team is stronger".

I pointed out before the tournament how much his reading of the game has improved in recent seasons - if he is heavily marked, he knows where and when to move to drag his markers to open up space for his teammates.

At the helm for almost six years, a fundamental flaw of the French under his reign has been the inability to score goals in crucial knockout games. They come in to the match on the back of an impressive, if somewhat nervy, victory over Brazil in the last round and the Spanish boss believes their preparations are starting to pay off. We gave everything we have got. But there haven't been one or two secrets to make it work, it's been common sense.

Didier Deschamps, the France manager, and Henry's captain when the World Cup and 2000 European Championship were won by Les Bleus, calls it "bizarre" that his compatriot will be on the opposing bench this afternoon, encouraging not Mbappe but the likes of Romelu Lukaku. Eden Hazard isn't shabby either.

"It's essential to have a player like Kevin, that he can play different roles", Martinez said. I'm proud of my players. "That's the quality that he has".

Lukaku led the counter-attack which led to Belgium's second goal against Brazil in the quarter-final and also set up their victor against Japan in the second round with an astute, unselfish dummy.

"He's become a star in France but when I was playing against him for City against Monaco he'd only played 10 matches", he started.

The final change Martinez made was to play Nacer Chadli in place of Dries Mertens as a traditional wide player.

France Defender Samuel Umtiti scored the winning goal with a powerful header past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in the 51st minute.

France are favourites due to their mix of youth and experience allied to tournament nous after they reached the Euro 2016 final. Whether that unnerves Kante in the semi-final remains to be seen, but judging by his game-breaking abilities (combined total of 69 tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries, the most at this World Cup), there is every reason to believe France will put the brakes on Hazard and Co.

With a berth in the final against the victor of Wednesday's other semifinal between Croatia and England awaiting, France is now the firm favorite to lift the Jules Rimet trophy on Sunday.

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