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Back over 2.5 goals in Thursday’s semi-final. France under Deschamps tend to play cagey soccer, but with plenty of attacking talent on display this could be an entertaining game.
Pick: Over 2.5 goals (+133)
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The European Championship did not go well for France. The pre-tournament favorites crashed out in the round of 16 despite having the strongest squad of all 24 teams to qualify. Drawn into a tough group in the first round, France went unbeaten against Germany, Hungary and Portugal, but convincing performances were few and far between. That was not seen as a big problem at the time given the functional manner in which France won the 2018 World Cup, but there would be no glory this time: les Bleus were knocked out on penalties by Switzerland in the last 16 following a thrilling 3-3 draw in Bucharest.
There were calls for Deschamps to be dismissed after France’s underperformance in the summer, but those went unheeded. There are arguably similarities to be drawn with Joachim Low, the former Germany manager who finally vacated his position earlier this year after a decade and a half at the helm. Low won the 2014 World Cup for die Mannschaft but failed to evolve the team thereafter. By the time he left in June, it was obvious to everyone that he had stayed on too long.
Some French fans fear the same could happen with Deschamps, who has been calling the shots since 2012. The former midfielder’s conservative tactics helped France win the World Cup in Russia, but there are signs that the international game is moving beyond that formula. Italy triumphed at Euro 2020 by playing soccer like a leading club side, with a strategy based on possession and pressing. Spain did the same and were only narrowly beaten by Italy on penalties in the semi-finals.
The Nations League is therefore significant for Deschamps, who is desperate to prove that he I still the right man for the job. Victory in this week’s Finals would be a form of vindication, but defeat by Belgium on Thursday would see the pressure build once more.
Belgium were also left empty-handed after Euro 2020, although they progressed one round further than the French. Their quarter-final against Italy was a hard-fought affair, but first-half goals from Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne proved decisive in a 2-1 win for the Azzurri. Roberto Martinez could point to injuries to key players as a factor in his team’s elimination, but this was another tournament from which Belgium’s golden generation failed to emerge triumphant.
Winning a World Cup or a European Championship is extremely difficult, but there will be a sense of regret if this crop of players fails to get their hands on a trophy. Next year’s World Cup will surely be the last chance for a group which finished third at the last edition in Russia. The Nations League would be welcome, albeit insufficient to scratch that particular itch.
Some members of the so-called golden generation have already called time on their international careers. Mousa Dembele is no longer part of the Belgium setup, and Vincent Kompany has retired from the game entirely. For the likes of Eden Hazard, Jan Vertoghen, Toby Alderweireld and Kevin De Bruyne, Qatar 2022 could be last-chance saloon.
Martinez might not even last that long, with the Barcelona links refusing to die down. The former Everton head coach has broadly gone a good job in charge of the Red Devils, who are much more competitive under his leadership than they were under Marc Wilmots, his predecessor. But Belgium still need to prove they can take that final step in a tournament environment, which is why the Nations League has a purpose for them too.
The World Cup semi-final between these two teams in 2018 was a cagey affair settled by a solitary goal from a set-piece. Samuel Umtiti was the scorer to send France through to the final, as Belgium failed to turn their possession into something more tangible. Martinez’s men went on to beat England in the third-place play-off, but that was manifestly the consolation prize.
Given Deschamps’ tendency towards caution and the high stakes involved in a World Cup semi-final, it was no surprising that the meeting in 2018 was low-scoring. Things could be different this time around. Both managers know how important a statement win could be, and Deschamps in particular will be keen to show his critics that he is capable of overseeing more proactive, front-foot soccer.
There will be no shortage of attacking quality on the field either, with De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku on the Belgian side and Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann representing France. This could be a match in which the attacks come out on top, so back over 2.5 goals in the second of this week’s Nations League semi-finals.
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|Belgium vs France Information|
|Teams||Belgium vs France|
|Location||Allianz Stadium, Turin, Italy|
|Time||Thursday, 7 October 2021, 14.45 PM EDT|
|How to watch||ESPN|
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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