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Battling Belgium threaten France's World Cup hopes
The French are dreaming of reaching another World Cup final. But could multicultural Belgium put the mockers on that ambition?
It is apt that Belgium, which houses the headquarters of the European Union, possesses a football team epitomising the concept of international cooperation.
Roberto Martinez, the head coach, is a Spaniard. His main assistant, Graeme Jones, is from England and his forwards coach is Thierry Henry, a Frenchman.
The triumvirate have united under the Belgian standard and are two games away from the biggest prize in national team football.
The combination, which goes into battle in St Petersburg on Tuesday against France in the World Cup semi-final, emerges from Martinez’s humility.
"I’ve been working with my technical staff for 12 years and there’s a clarity in our methodology," said Martinez. "What Thierry has brought in his two years with us is something that we didn’t have, international experience and the knowhow of winning a World Cup.
"We didn’t have the knowhow of how a footballer is expected to perform in front of the eyes of the world and knowing how they feel in those moments. Thierry Henry brings that. He can give the player an idea of what they’re going to see – going into the unknown. Belgian football doesn’t have a path of a previous generation to follow. Thierry brings that as an ex-footballer of elite status."
French dream of final
France does have insight. The France coach, Didier Deschamps, was skipper of a squad that included Henry that lifted the World Cup in 1998 following a 3-0 victory over Brazil. Deschamps was also patrolling midfield when France won the European championships in 2000.
Nearly two decades later the 49-year-old has the chance to become only the third man after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer to win the World Cup as a player and as a coach.
Belgium and either England or Croatia could ruin that dream for at least another four years.
"I think Belgium has been the most complete team during the tournament,” said France skipper Hugo Lloris. “They defend really well, attack really well, they are good on the counter. They are strong in the air and on the ground. They have all it takes to be a great team and hence they are a great team."
Lloris, who reached the milestone of 100 caps in the second group stage match against Peru during the tournament, added: "Belgium have a fantastic generation of players. If we want to beat them, we must play a great match."
France has the talent. The forward line boasts the selfless target man Olivier Giroud as well as the guile of Antoine Griezmann and the pacy power of Kylian Mbappé.
However, for all the extravagant trickery of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, Martinez says he may rely on some old-fashioned virtues.
"Marouane Fellaini shares the best possible mentality to have in a team. He is a warrior and every action matters. He will put his whole heart and his whole effort in."
France could perhaps offer Blaise Matuidi as Fellaini’s counterpart. Matuidi, 31, has been one of Deschamps’ first choices in midfield. He was suspended for the quarter-final against Uruguay and was replaced by Corentin Tolisso. However, Matuidi, who has 70 caps, could make his return in the semi-final to patrol the midfield with N’golo Kanté and Paul Pogba.
"We’re in the semi-final of the World Cup," said Deschamps. "And we have the chance to get into the final. We’ve got to make the most of what we have and do our best to get there."