France v Belgium
Saint Petersburg Stadium, Tuesday, 7pm
Live on RTÉ 2 and BBC 1
A little like neighbours who pop next door to each other in order to watch games, the French and Belgians met over football quite a bit down the years. This will be the 75th encounter, in fact. Most of the time it's been friendly, sometimes fun but when it has mattered most, at two World Cups and Euro '84, it has only ever gone one way. Didier Deschamps will be hoping to extend the winning French run this evening.
The last big meeting was in Puebla, Mexico, 32 years ago when they played for World Cup bronze medals after both were beaten in the semi-finals. Whatever happens in St Petersburg tonight, the stakes will certainly be higher.
After the games both have won to get here, confidence is high among the opposing sides. Maybe it says something about the Belgians, though, that when Nacer Chadli and Thomas Vermaelen simultaneously expressed the opinion at training on Monday that they can go all the way, somebody back at De Standaard felt obliged to note: "Of course, the French will feel the same."
Maybe there is still scepticism at home given the way, as Deschamps put it at his pre-match press conference, “they caught a cold against Wales”, two years ago. But Roberto Martinez’s side has made a decent case for itself over the last few weeks. Three straight group wins have been followed by the dramatic late success over Japan in which they showed character and enjoyed a bit of luck.
That has since been eclipsed by their defeat of a Brazil team widely regarded as favourites. And so, with 14 goals scored already, the failings that afflicted them in key games two and four years ago seem to have been consigned to history.
France, of course, on the strength of their last two games, look set to present another massive challenge. The sense is that after the way his team selection and approach helped to provide an edge over the five-times World Champions, Martinez has a big bit part to play again on this occasion.
"All the players think that our manager is a step ahead tactically," says Chadli, of a man who was widely derided as naive when departing Everton a couple of years back. His subsequent appointment as coach of a team generally regarded as having the assorted individual talents required to win a world title came as a surprise. And such is the nature of qualifying these days that nobody seemed quite sure whether they had hired the right man as the squad touched down in Russia at the start of June.
By successfully unsettling a Brazil defence that had conceded just once up until that game, and using Marouane Fellaini to add a more physical edge in midfield last Friday, he seems to have persuaded quite a few of those who had been sitting on the fence. This time there will be the pace of Kylian Mbappé and the passing of Antoine Griezmann to contend with and Deschamps rattled through the Belgian tactics at his pre-match press conference like a man who feels they are not necessarily a huge cause for concern. Perhaps Martinez can stay one step ahead of the inexperienced French full backs, however well they have played so far.
The French coach has the more settled side but must decide whether to bring Blaise Matuidi back in for Corintin Tolisso now that his suspension is out of the way. His rival must find a way to fill the gap left by Thomas Meunier, who serves a one-match ban, and whether to retain Fellaini in the starting line-up.
Switching Chadli from left to right seems the most likely solution to the more pressing problem, although it may mean the return of Yannick Carrasco going up against Mbappé which, given the Belgian midfielder's previous displays, might set the scene for a Waterloo of sorts, one in which the French forces come out on top.
Belgium are the more inclined to retain possession and attack but will be aware that this approach may suit their opponents as it did when Argentina tried it and got hit by a succession of quick breaks.
Belgium beat Japan, though, with an exquisite break and looked happy to sit back for long stretches and await their chances against Brazil. So it is not entirely clear who might make the running this time around.
Either way, the game has tremendous potential. And while there is not much to choose between the teams, the French will start as favourites even if the tone of their goalkeeper might suggest otherwise.
"When it comes to possession," says Hugo Lloris, "they can beat you with three passes going forward; three piercing passes, that's what they did to Brazil. They will ask a lot of questions of us and the answers will have to be collective answers. They will be confident. We will have to stick together."
France: Lloris; Hernandez, Umtiti, Varane, Pavard; Kante, Pogba; Blaise Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.
Belgium: Courtois; Vertonghen, Kompany, Alderweireld; Chadli, Witsel, Fellaini, Carrasco; Hazard, Lukaku, De Bruyne.
Referee: A Cunha (Uruguay).