World Cup 2018: Team-by-team guide to the final four

England manager Gareth Southgate
Hands up anyone who thought Gareth Southgate would lead England to the semi-finals of the World Cup.
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England are in the semi-final of the World Cup, and Mike Norman believes they have just as good a chance of lifting the trophy as any of the other sides as he delivers his team-by-team guide to the last four...

To Win the World Cup;

- France [3.1]
- England [3.75]
- Belgium [3.95]
- Croatia [6.0]

Unimpressive France not worthy of favourites tag

France Tournament Record: W4-D1-L0, GF 9, GA 4
Leading scorer: Antoine Griezmann & Kylian Mbappe - 3
Winner Odds: [3.1]
To Reach the Final Odds: [1.83]

Route to the Semi-Final

France looked distinctly unimpressive during their two group victories over Australia (2-1) and Peru (1-0) before being involved in the worst game of the tournament, a 0-0 draw with Denmark, to end their group phase.

But it was job done for Didier Deschamps' men and their very next match saw them involved in arguably the best game of the tournament, coming from 2-1 down to beat Argentina 4-3 with star man Kylian Mbappe producing a superb performance. But that wasn't a great Argentine team that they beat, and they again failed to impress when beating Uruguay 2-0 in the quarter-final.

Possible starting XI and potential match winner v Belgium

Lloris, Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez, Pogba, Kante, Mbappe, Griezmann, Tolisso, Giroud

Will Deschamps be tempted to change a winning side? It's unlikely, but Olivier Giroud has largely been ineffective as a lone-striker, though playing this system - with Griezmann and Mbappe just behind - does seem to suit Mbappe better than the front-three forward line that Deschamps opened the tournament with (Dembele starting instead of Giroud on that occasion).

Mbappe is undoubtedly France's star man and potential match winner, and he could have a lot of joy receiving the ball deep and running at the Belgium defence if Roberto Martinez lines-up the same way as he did against Brazil. You sense though that if Mbappe doesn't perform then this will be a very tough game for France.

Antoine Griezmann doesn't look at his best, and Paul Pogba is unlikely to be given much license to get forward given he will have his hands full trying to stifle the runs of Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.

Verdict

You can skip this section if you're looking for any confident guidance as to which team will lift the Jules Rimet trophy in seven days time, because in all honestly, your guess is just as good as mine.

And the reason for that is that any of the four remaining teams, on their day, can beat each other. And that's why I'm a little surprised that France are clear favourites to win the World Cup. They haven't been as impressive as Belgium during this tournament, not even close in fact, and if both teams turned up in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday night at their absolute best then I'd fancy Martinez's men to prevail.

Both France and Belgium have great goalkeepers and solid defences, but while Mbappe can be brilliant on his day, right now is he any better than a peak Eden Hazard? Will Pogba be more effective than De Bruyne? And who would you rather have in attack, Giroud or Romelu Lukaku?

This isn't a vintage French side; a good one yes, full of great individuals, but from what I've seen in this tournament so far a Belgium side performing close to how they did against Brazil will be too good. The [3.2] about them winning in 90 minutes looks a very tempting bet.

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Team spirit a big factor in England's success

England Tournament Record (shoot-out wins = draw): W3-D1-L1, GF 11, GA 4
Leading scorer: Harry Kane - 6
Winner Odds: [3.75]
To Reach the Final Odds: [1.7]

Route to the Semi-Final

England started like a house on fire against Tunisia, producing one of the best 45 minutes of football seen at this World Cup in that Group G opener. But as madness would have it, they only went into the interval in that game level at 1-1, and they needed an injury-time winner at the end of a scrappy second half to take the points.

The Three Lions then thrashed Panama - Harry Kane bagging a hat-trick in a 6-1 win - before losing a meaningless game against Belgium to conclude the group phase. Well, we say meaningless, but that defeat has given Gareth Southgate's men the easier passage to the final, and so far they are taking full advantage.

England weren't great against Colombia, creating very little but generally looking in control at 1-0 before conceding a potentially heart-braking last-minute goal that would ultimately lead to a penalty shoot-out. England won that shoot-out - their first ever at a World Cup - and they looked to have gained plenty of belief in that victory judging by the manner in which they defeated Sweden 2-0 in the quarter-final.

Possible starting XI and potential match winner v Croatia

Pickford, Trippier, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Young, Henderson, Alli, Lingard, Sterling, Kane

Unless any of England's now established starting XI are fatigued then you'd expect Southgate to go with the same line-up that started against Colombia and Sweden, though Croatia's midfield is the best they will have faced at this tournament so perhaps sacrificing one of the attacking players for the more defensive-minded Eric Dier or Ruben Loftus-Cheek is an option.

But you get the feeling that Southgate will let Croatia worry about England more than the other way round, and he'll once again put his faith in the starting XI that has got the Three Lions to their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years.

England's potential match winners are endless. They have been brilliant at set-pieces this tournament so any of the big defenders could prove key, while Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli running deep from midfield have the ability to unlock any defence and produce that moment of magic. And then there's Harry Kane of course, who is currently trading at just [1.21] to win the Golden Boot.

But this could be Raheem Sterling's time. The Manchester City striker deserves enormous credit for the tireless running he's doing in attack which is allowing space elsewhere on the field. He's getting into some great positions, proving a handful for defenders, and he is very much a key part of England's success.

Verdict

It's heartwarming to see so many smiles on the faces of England's players and staff. While it's hard to argue that this England squad don't have great players the general feeling is that many of them fall just short of being top class, and that their success on the field is as much down to a great team spirit as it is anything else.

It's impossible not to be impressed by Southgate; his incredibly calm nature and professional approach to everything he does has brought the whole nation together and back in love with the England national side.

Croatia in Moscow on Wednesday night will be an extremely tough encounter, but the Three Lions deserve to be favourite at [2.4] against a team that has come through two penalty shoot-outs against national sides rated inferior to England. Come through this and a World Cup final against either France or Belgium really is a coin toss game.


Belgian attack can destroy anyone

Belgium Tournament Record: W5-D0-L0, GF 14, GA 5
Leading scorer: Romelu Lukaku - 4
Winner Odds: [3.95]
To Reach the Final Odds: [2.2]

Route to the Semi-Final

Belgium brushed aside Panama and Tunisia in their first two group games in much the same fashion as England did; if fact they had an identical record going into their Group G decider which Belgium won 1-0, meaning they topped the group and went into the more difficult side of the draw.

After the huge scare of going 2-0 down against Japan in their Round of 16 tie Roberto Martinez's men responded magnificently, scoring three goals in the closing stages to break the hearts of the Japanese and set up a quarter-final meeting with Brazil.

In that quarter-final Belgium were magnificent, especially going forward with Kevin De Bruyne, now playing in his favoured more advanced role, pulling all the strings. Hazard was magnificent too, and Lukaku's hold-up play, pure power and strength was a joy to watch.

Yes Belgium had their scares, but no team is going to play 90 minutes against a very talented Brazil side without having to rely on their goalkeeper from time to time. And when they did require Thibaut Courtois to perform the Chelsea man didn't let them down. Martinez's men deserved their victory, and they go into the semi-finals as the only nation to have won five out of five games at this year's World Cup.

Possible starting XI and potential match winner v France

Courtois, Boyata, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli, De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku

Martinez is forced into making at least one change as right-back Thomas Meunier is suspended, Dedryck Boyata is likely to replace him.

It was a surprising line-up for Belgium in their quarter-final against Brazil with both Yannick Carrasco and Dries Mertens dropped in favour of the more defensively-minded Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli. It was a move that worked a treat, allowing De Bruyne to operate in a more advanced role, eventually causing Brazil problems every time they attacked.

It's likely that Martinez will go with the same midfield set-up against France, meaning N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba will sit deep to try and nullify the threat of both De Bruyne and Hazard. If either of France's star protectors fail in their jobs however, then any one of Belgium's world class midfielders, or striker Lukaku, will step up and win the game.

Verdict

As I've already said in my France verdict, who wins the World Cup from here is anyone's guess. However I'm very surprised that Belgium are the outsiders to win their semi-final. I feel they have a much more fluid midfield with De Bruyne and Hazard popping up all over the place, especially with the added protection that Chadli and Fellaini give, and in attack in-form Lukaku can cause huge problems to the French defence.

It's all about the day though. But if both sides turn up at their best then I'm very confident that Belgium's golden generation will make it to the final.

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Jaded Croatia still a huge threat

Croatia Tournament Record: (shoot-out wins = draw) W3-D2-L0, GF 10, GA 4
Leading scorer: Luka Modric - 2
Winner Odds: [6.0]
To Reach the Final Odds: [2.4]

Route to the Semi-Final

Croatia were magnificent during the group stages, producing arguably the performance of the tournament in thrashing Argentina 3-0, while victories over Nigeria and Iceland - conceding just a single goal in the process - meant they topped the group with a 100% record. Luka Modric was in sparkling form, and Croatia looked to be a real force.

But since then it hasn't been great for Zlatko Dalic's men; they had to come from behind in both knock-out games against Denmark and Russia, and to their credit they did before eventually winning on penalties both times. The go into Wednesday's semi-final against England having played more tournament minutes than any of the other three remaining sides.

Possible starting XI and potential match winner v England

Subasic, Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic, Modric, Rakitic, Brozovic, Perisic, Kramaric, Mandzukic

It's impossible to see any of Croatia's star men - Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, Mandzukic - being left out of Wednesday's semi-final but this is easily the most difficult line-up to predict. Dalic has already made plenty of changes throughout the tournament to his starting XI, with both Brozovic and Rebic taking turns in getting the nod.

But you feel that the Croatia boss must try and freshen up his side in some way to face England. Modric has looked a little tired - understandably so given the amount of work he puts in - during the latter stages of recent games and you just wonder if he'll be given a more advanced role with no emphasis on tracking back against the Three Lions.

That could actually work in Croatia's favour - in much the same way as De Bruyne was allowed to get more forward without having to worry about his defensive duties against Brazil - and we all know from his Tottenham days (and even during this tournament when advancing forward) how dangerous he can be when playing just behind the attackers.

Modric is undoubtedly Croatia's star man, but Ivan Perisic is a tremendous talent on the left wing and he will surely give Kieran Trippier his hardest game of the tournament so far. That could be a key battle.

Verdict

Croatia undoubtedly have the talent to beat England though I believe the market is correct in pricing up Southgate's men as the favourites, with Dalic's men the outsiders at [3.6].

My big concern for Croatia - and I know a lot of people are playing it down - is not necessarily the fact that they had to come through extra-time in both of their knock-out games, but more so that a lot of their players looked dead on their feet towards the end of the game against Russia. Right-back Sime Vrsaljko looked incredibly jaded before being substituted, while Modric and Rakitic put in huge efforts during the 120 minutes.

I believe England have the more talent and definitely pose a bigger threat in attack, but if the game does boil down to fatigue then you have to fancy the young Lions to end Croatia's World Cup dreams.

Modric600.JPG

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