World Cup Semifinal Betting Preview: Can France Quiet Belgium’s Prolific Attack?

Jul 10, 2018 8:00 AM EDT

The Highlights

  • France is a slight favorite over Belgium to make it to the World Cup Final.
  • Although they haven’t yet hit their stride, France has been incredibly tough to break down and are a matchup nightmare for Belgium.
  • Belgium’s best chance is to hope their star players, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, can get the better of France’s N’Golo Kante in the midfield. 

Betting odds: Belgium vs. France, 2 p.m., Fox

  • Belgium +213
  • France +150
  • Draw +212

In a semifinal match between the two remaining sides that have yet to be forced to extra time or, worse still, the dreaded penalty shootout, there is no physical advantage for either team on the face of it. That said, in the knockout rounds, it is Belgium that have been made to work significantly harder for their spot in the final four.

The Red Devils needed to come from two down to avoid what would have been a huge upset against Japan, requiring a 94th-minute winner from Nacer Chadli, and while no such late heroics were required against Brazil, the pre-tournament favorites pushed Roberto Martinez’s men all the way in the quarterfinals.

That may, in part, have had a slight reflection on the odds ahead of a tough game to call in Saint Petersburg this Tuesday, with France far more comfortable in victory over an Edinson Cavani-less Uruguay team and arguably more so than the scoreline suggested in a seven-goal thriller with Argentina.

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Said victory in the Round of 16 remains the only time when Didier Deschamps’ men have really clicked from an attacking standpoint, however, having averaged the 15th-most shots per game in Russia, while Belgium rank third and — with five more than France — are the tournament’s leading goal scorers, with an impressive 14. — Martin Laurence


Breaking Down the Odds

Both France and Belgium were among the teams with the best odds to win the World Cup before the tournament. France entered at +700 but actually increased to +900 before the Round of 16 because they were matched up with Argentina. After defeating them, 4-3, France found themselves behind only Brazil to hoist the trophy.

Belgium were one of my picks to win it at +1400, and their odds came down to +1050 before their first group match. Entering the Round of 16 they were down to +675, and after defeating Japan, they were at +630. If they should reach the final, they’ll be favorites against either England or Croatia. — Dan McGuire


Tactical Breakdown

France are the best team left in the tournament, and yet they continue to be frustratingly underwhelming. They have an expansive roster of attackers, backstopped by the best ball-winner in the world in N’Golo Kante.

Despite that, they choose to set up as a defense-oriented side. Rather than leveraging Kante’s skills to set midfield partner Paul Pogba free to join in the attack, Deschamps chooses to keep Pogba in a reserved role, making extra sure that the midfield is well-manned.

Rather than unleash four attackers ahead of the midfield, Deschamps has opted to field a third midfielder, Blaise Matuidi, whose job is primarily to defend from the front and press the opposition.

It’s a system that works; France have stifled every team they’ve played (except for Argentina, whose three goals came from a 35-yard bomb, a deflection and a garbage-time consolation goal), but it still leaves something to be desired. With Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, France seem like they should just be more fun, even if they’re still very good.

Belgium, on the other hand, have fun locked up. After cruising through the group stage, they’ve had a rip-roaring, roller coaster of a time in the knockout rounds. They fell behind Japan, 2-0, before rallying to win, 3-2, on the last kick of regular time. For their next trick, they jumped out to a 2-0 lead against Brazil, and hung on to win, 2-1, despite a furious last-minute barrage from Neymar & Co.

Belgium lined up quite differently in their two matches. Against Japan, Martinez played his usual 3-4-3 with Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel in midfield. But against Brazil, Martinez benched winger Dries Mertens, moved striker Romelu Lukaku wide to the right and played De Bruyne in the front line as a false nine, a striker dropping into the midfield.

After a 13th-minute own goal gave Belgium the lead, the counterattacking trio of De Bruyne, Lukaku and Eden Hazard were able to get multiple free runs at Brazil’s back line, ultimately giving Belgium a second goal and a margin that was too large for Brazil to claw back.

How Belgium set up against France is crucially important. Deschamps would like nothing more than to let Belgium try to attack them, and then tee up counterattack after counterattack for Mbappe. It’s hard to see how a midfield duo of De Bruyne and Witsel could provide their back line enough protection to stop that from happening.

However, if Belgium went for a more defensive pairing such as Witsel and Mourane Fellaini, it’s hard to see how they’d be able to break through that great French defensive wall. If Belgium do make attacking progress, it will likely be down the flanks, specifically on France’s right, where Hazard could take advantage of Mbappe’s tendency to come in off the wing, and the fact that Belgium’s first choice wingback Thomas Meunier is suspended. — Michael Goodman


Numbers to Watch

N’Golo Kante Ball Recoveries: If Kante is consistently turning Belgium over, it’s going to be a long day for the Red Devils. One of the ways France loves to counterattack is by taking Kante’s ball-winning and turning it into a quick attack at the other end. If Kante is spending the afternoon taking the ball away from the likes of De Bruyne and Witsel, it’s going to lead to shots at the other end.

Kevin De Bruyne Final Third Passes: De Bruyne is a brilliant passer. Either in transition or in settled attacks, he makes things happen. Depending on where he starts, he’ll have different challenges to overcome. If he starts in deep midfield, then it will be important to watch how often he’s able to get forward and play those final third passes to teammates. If he starts as part of an attacking trio, he’ll need teammates to make sure they feed him the ball, so that he in turn can do something with it. — Michael Goodman


Injuries/Suspensions 

One of France’s reserve defenders, Djibril Sidibe, is likely out for the semifinal. He has appeared in only one match throughout the tournament. Samuel Umtiti, a starting center back for France, is dealing with a leg injury but should be fine for the match vs. Belgium.

 

Meunier is the only player suspended for either semifinal match. He’s been a solid outside midfielder/defender in the World Cup, so Martinez will have the shuffle things once again. The suspension is even more frustrating considering the fact that Meunier went 327 minutes in between yellow cards, and the first one was highly questionable. — Dan McGuire


Goalscorer Props

As far as the anytime goalscorer market is concerned, most bookmakers are finding it difficult to separate Griezmann and Lukaku as the favorites. That’s despite the fact that the former has barely gotten out of third gear thus far this summer, with two penalties and a freak strike against Uruguay that was helped into the net by Fernando Muslera.

Lukaku has been the stronger performer and in turn has one more goal but hasn’t scored in the knockout phase of the tournament. He didn’t so much as muster a shot against Brazil, instead playing an admirably unselfish role following a switch in system that has allowed the likes of De Bruyne and Hazard to flourish.

With that in mind, my tip would instead be on Mbappe, who proved against Argentina what he can do against a side that plays an expansive and attacking game. Belgium would certainly fall under that category under Martinez, and with the left wing-back position arguably the weak point in the Spaniard’s side, this game could play into the youngster’s hands. — Martin Laurence


Gamebreakers

France has shown thus far in the 2018 World Cup that they are more than willing to win ugly and that they also have the skill to go out and win pretty.  Griezmann and Mbappe have shown the class that you would expect from them, and each of them has stepped up at different stages of the tournament. Mbappe gave Argentina’s defense fits in the Round of 16. He was able to run at them and keep them off balance all game. Against Uruguay, Griezmann was the driving force.

One of the things that will worry France backers is that they have yet to click on all cylinders in this tournament. Part of the reason for this lack of cohesion is the lineup construction. Instead of giving the offense another weapon such as Nabil Fekir, Deschamps has opted for more defensive options, and I assume that will be the case in the semifinal considering Belgium’s counterattacking prowess.

After being suspended in the quarterfinals, Matuidi will likely start in the midfield. He will be joined by Pogba and Kante. You can argue that Kante will be the most important player in this game because of his ability to snuff out counterattacks.

Belgium’s fun style and constant willingness to attack is a breath of fresh air in a tournament that features so many teams that are willing to get a lead and park the bus. The counterattack that led to their game-winning goal against Japan was a thing of absolute beauty, culminating with Lukaku’s fantastic dummy to allow the ball to find Chadli in front of the open net.

Lukaku ranks second in the tournament in goals scored but has also contributed in other areas of the game, and his unselfish play has provided Belgium’s attack with even more depth. His unselfish run on De Bruyne’s goal against Brazil may go unnoticed, but it was a hugely important play in Belgium’s upset over the tournament favorites.

Speaking of De Bruyne, he figures to be the most important piece of the puzzle for Belgium. For the Red Devils to have success, De Bruyne will need to play in a more advanced position. He might be the best player in the world at transitioning a team from defense to offense. And when you add in Hazard on top of that, it gives Belgium the best counter attack in international soccer. — Sean Newsham


Our Bets

Dan McGuire: Over 2 goals (-135), Belgium to advance (+115)
Martin Laurence: Mbappe to score (+240)
Sean Newsham: Over 2.25 Goals (-127)
Michael Goodman: France to Advance (-131)

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