If you discount World Cup pedigree, which has actually had little or no bearing in Russia 2018 so far, there is little to choose from between France and Belgium when the two European nations lock horns in the first semifinal at the Saint Petersburg Stadium today.
The weather is very conducive -- not hot like Samara or Kazan. It was actually overcast when the French trained yesterday. And Petersburg is expected to be as cool as 17 degrees Celcius when France will look to keep their World Cup record intact against a Belgian side that has conquered five-time champions Brazil in a hard-fought quarterfinal.
France are a young side. They came into this tournament as the most talented side, which Belgium was bracketed as four years ago in Brazil. The Belgians might have failed to live up to their potential then, when they were eliminated from the quarterfinal stages, but France have showed more maturity in their youth to battle their way past Argentina in the round of 16 before dispatching two-time champions Uruguay 2-0 in the quarterfinal.
Both teams have got the firepower to surprise the other despite the fact that they play almost the same style and their players know each other very well. It will be a golden opportunity for France coach Didier Deschamps to win the title both as a player and manager for the Les Bleus after leading the side to their first-ever World Cup glory in 1998.
However, Belgium have showed the tenacity needed to overcome adversity in this World Cup so far. They came from 2-0 down to beat Japan 3-2 and then kept Brazil at bay to make it to the last four for only the second time since 1986, when they finished third. It was also the year they met France at the biggest stage and lost the position deciding game 4-2.
For Deschamps it will be a challenge to confront his Belgian counterpart Roberto Martinez, who successfully adopted a different formation against Brazil. The French coach however said that he was well aware of that and ready to counter any changes in formation in the game.
Martinez said after the victory against Brazil that it was the best thing that happened for him and his side but yesterday he said that the mission is yet to be accomplished.
“We have a tough game against France. And a win will take us to the final. We will be proud if we can do that,” Martinez told reporters.
Out in the middle, it will be a battle within a battle. It will be Kylian Mbappe's time to take his growing reputation one notch higher after his exploits against Argentina. Belgium's Romelu Lukaku will try to emulate the speed and guile of Mbappe. It will be a classic battle between Antoine Griezmann and Eden Hazard, a clash between Paul Pogba and Kevin De Bruyne, a fight between Vincent Kompany and Raphael Varane.
More importantly, it will be a clash of titanic proportions for the tournament's two most impressive goalkeepers -- Thibaut Courtois and Hugo Lloris.
Four years after the Brazil disappointment, Belgium have matured and that will probably be their biggest strength against a French side who have got more depth in attack and defence. But whoever wins, it promises to be a cracker of a semifinal, even for those who have lost their appetite for the World Cup following the departure of the two South American rivals -- Brazil and Argentina.