The beauty of the World Cup is that it turns club mates and great pals into on-pitch rivals. As France take on Belgium in the first semifinal on Tuesday, there would be several interesting matchups. Both teams boast of significant Premier League presence, and then in the Belgian dug-out, French icon Thierry Henry would be plotting his own country’s downfall.
Men United divided
Lukaku vs Pogba: Romelu Lukaku was the biggest transfer coup of the Premier League last season, along with Alexis Sanchez. Jose Mourinho hijacked the Belgian centre-forward from under the noses of Chelsea, and ‘Agent P’ was the catalyst. Lukaku and Pogba had been vacationing in the US, when the latter convinced the Lukaku to join Manchester United, snubbing the Blues. Pogba even posted pictures with Lukaku on social media, calling himself ‘Agent P’. And after the £75m deal, Lukaku returned the favour calling Pogba his “best friend and neighbor”. Come Tuesday, the two great friends will turn foes at Saint Petersburg. Lukaku has been in blazing form in this World Cup, scoring four goals and making as many key passes including assists. He made telling contributions to Belgium’s winning goals in the last two matches. As France’s No. 6, Pogba would be directly pitted against his pal tomorrow. The Frenchman’s defensive discipline remains under the scanner and Lukaku’s diagonal runs might pose a serious threat. A lot will depend on who wins the duel.
Pogba vs Fellaini: Another in-house fight, between two United team mates. Pogba has always been a great attacking threat, although he hasn’t scored a goal or registered an assist in this World Cup yet. But his passing range was superb against Argentina and Uruguay, and Roberto Martinez’s Belgium would use Marouane Fellaini to counter Pogba. He had Neymar in his back pocket in the quarterfinal. Fellaini would match Pogba’s size. The latter will have the advantage on the ball.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité, Titi
Henry vs France: Two decades after he won the World Cup with France, Thierry Henry would be plotting his own country’s downfall tomorrow. Professional assignments throw up bizarre situations at times but France’s all-time leading goal-scorer (51 goals) has made a huge backroom impact during his two-year association with the Belgian national team. Lukaku says he has learnt the art of running into space from the legend. Giroud, however, has vowed to prove that “Titi (Henry) has chosen the wrong side”.
Les Chelsea Blues
Kante vs Hazard: Playing alongside Kante is like “playing with twins”, Hazard had said last year. Tomorrow, the Chelsea team mates will take the field, aiming to cancel each other. France’s Kante is arguably the best ball-winning midfielder in football at the moment. He is going to the semifinal with 17 interceptions and 10 clearances against his name. His passing accuracy, two halves combined, is 90 per cent. Hazard, on the other hand, is Belgium’s X-factor. He has 10 shots on target and two goals so far. As per the Squawka Football stats, he completed on 10 take-ons against Brazil – a record in a single game at this World Cup. Kante versus Hazard feels like a battle between the immovable and the unstoppable.
Courtois vs Giroud: On the match eve, Olivier Giroud has claimed he knows how to score against Thibaut Courtois. “I have scored a few goals against him in training with Chelsea and I hope I can do it on Tuesday,” the French marksman told reporters. Courtois goes to the semifinal on the heels of a match-winning performance against Brazil. He has kept two clean sheets in five matches. Giroud, on the other hand, is yet to be on the score sheet for France. But ahead of the match, he has fanned the flames by saying his national team captain, Hugo Lloris, is the “better ‘keeper” in this World Cup than his Chelsea team mate.
Spurs of the moment
Lloris vs Vertonghen: The two Tottenham team mates are unlikely to cross paths except on set-plays, corners especially. So this duel deserves just an honourable mention.