Belgium versus France did feel a bit like a final on Tuesday. The winner would face off against the winner of England vs Croatia in the final and would be massive favorites. France, arguably the most complete team in the tournament so far, prevailed 1-0 and entered their second consecutive major final, after Euro 2016.
Two years ago, in their home country, Les Blues were considered firm favorites to win the European Championships, especially after beating world champions Germany in the semi-finals. They were up against Portugal, who had only qualified from their group as a result of the newly-formed rule which gave four of the six best third-placed side’s entry into the knockout rounds. Despite Cristiano Ronaldo being in good form, no one gave the visitors any chance whatsoever. Paul Pogba, in an interview after the Belgium game, revealed that neither did France.
“I am not going to lie. At the Euros, we thought that it was already done. We told ourselves that we had won already after beating Germany, that was the real final for us.
“We are aware of that now. We don’t want to repeat the same mistake. We will prepare differently. We really want to win this final.”
Portugal went on to win the game in extra-time in dramatic fashion, thanks to a stunning strike from the most unlikely of sources in Eder. This was after Ronaldo had been hauled off with an injury in the first half itself, thereby adding to the French complacency. They simply failed to turn up and were unable to break down the dogged and determined underdogs.
France is once again in a similar situation. The way the draws turned out, Germany and Spain got knocked out early and as a result, the quarter-finalists on the opposite side were Russia, Croatia, England, and Sweden.
It’s the Croats who’ve made it through to the final for the first time ever. They’ve been one of the most solid sides in the tournament and even though they haven’t replicated their stunning form from the group stages in the knockout rounds, the quality is there for all to see. The likes of Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic are all proven at the top level in European football and won’t fear France at all.
Both these teams had their previous best showings at the 1998 World Cup. France, of course, were champions after beating Brazil 3-0 in the final. Croatia, on debut, finished in third place with an inspired performance by striker Davor Suker, who finished the competition as top scorer.
There is no doubt that France is big favorites on Sunday. They have been brilliant so far, in every aspect of the pitch. The only thing standing in their way is their own overconfidence and complacency, which came back to bite them big time in the Euro 2016 final. But the group of players is largely the same, and manager Didier Deschamps will know what to do to avoid the same mistake once again.
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