Clash of Titans

SAINT PETERSBURG: Eden Hazard and a brilliant Belgian generation stand between France and a place in the World Cup final as the countries bring their historic rivalry to Tuesday’s first semifinal in Saint Petersburg.
Not since 1986 have Belgium made it this far at the World Cup, losing to a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina in Mexico and then going down 4-2 to France in the third-place play-off, the last competitive meeting of the nations.
In the years since, France have won one World Cup and one European Championship, and lost the 2006 World Cup final. Now, with Kylian Mbappe their new standard-bearer, they are dreaming of getting there again.
Belgium disappeared from the forefront of the international scene for years before emerging once more with their current gifted crop.
With Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne, they lost in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals and at the same stage at Euro 2016, but under Roberto Martinez in Russia they have already taken an extra step after stunning Brazil in the last eight in Kazan.
“They are a great team with a very good generation of players who have been playing together for several years,” admitted France striker Olivier Giroud, who plays with Hazard and Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea.
“We don’t want to have them taking the mickey out of us. There is a big rivalry between France and Belgium, it’s like a derby match.”
Beyond the geographical and linguistic ties, many of these players also know each other intimately from the Premier League. Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku were already close friends before becoming colleagues at Manchester United. But Hazard sums up better than anyone the close links between the nations.
Born in the French-speaking part of Belgium, he came through as a player across the border at Lille, and was the outstanding player in the team that won the French league and cup double in 2011 before eventually moving on to Chelsea. The French will remember well what happened when the teams last met, with Belgium tearing them apart in a 4-3 friendly win in Paris in June 2015.
And the presence of French World Cup winner Thierry Henry on the Belgian coaching staff as one of Martinez’s assistants adds extra spice to the occasion. “Of course I would prefer it if he were with us and he were giving me his advice, but we mustn’t be jealous,” said Giroud.
“To do what (Mbappe) is doing at his age, I have never seen that, apart from Messi,” said Belgium’s Nacer Chadli. “We came through the Japan game, then we broke down a barrier by beating Brazil. When you beat Brazil you don’t fear anyone.” — AFP