Commentary Box: From dark horses to champion stallions

Who could have predicted that the perennial dark horses of the 2018 FIFA World Cup would be setting their stall with a glorious semi-final spot?
The odds would have been heavily stacked against France, England, Belgium and Croatia in the pre-tournament predictions but, like a top racehorse, they have come out of the gate with speed and are now in control of their own destiny with the World Cup trophy in sight.
Belgium faces France in the first semi-final on Tuesday night, with Croatia taking on England in the second semi-final on Wednesday night. It is nearly impossible to predict a winner, especially looking at the unpredictable cliffhangers that have formed part of the narrative in Russia.

Belgium has dazzled with their attacking play down the wings and beautiful swift counter-attacking style. This team is packed with stars like the goal-scoring machine, Romelu Lukaku, the wizardry of Eden Hazard and the surgical precision of midfield maestro, Kevin de Bruyne. For the first time, it seems that this side has not let their reputation for under-performing get to them. They have played as a team instead of as individuals as in previous tournaments. It’s now or never for this talented group who, under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, overcame Brazil 2–1 in a display worthy of winning the World Cup.

The golden generation of Belgian football now has the opportunity of a lifetime to lift their first World Cup and surpass the success of the 1986 squad that claimed the fourth place in Mexico.
Croatia is in a similar position having emulated the much-heralded class of ‘98 by reaching the semi-finals for the second time in their history with a tense 4–3 win on penalties against the hosts, Russia. Croatia can now believe they can go all the way with stars like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic leading from the front.

Croatia also has to tip their hat to the goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, who has regularly kept them in the game with fantastic saves. His heroics in the penalty shootout against both Denmark and Russia should not be underestimated.
France and England are strangely similar in that they both came to the World Cup with young, vibrant squads. Both countries’ progression to the last four underlines the fact that youth can bring a sense of new-found optimism and an injection of adrenaline that these two countries need in a major tournament. If they grab semi-final wins, we could see the classic England versus France rivalry taking on extra importance on the biggest stage.

As expected, the English fans are currently riding a huge wave of optimism after achieving their first semi-final spot since Italia 90. Harry Kane is their talisman up front with a tournament-leading six goals while, at the back, Harry Maguire and keeper, Jordan Pickford, have turned into national heroes overnight.
France, on the other hand, has quietly found their mojo during this tournament after a somewhat lacklustre display in the group stages. Knockout football has brought out the best in Didier Deschamps’ side with Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante pulling the strings from midfield in a typical no-nonsense approach. They are the heart of this French dark horse that is being groomed into champion pedigree with each match. If you are not into the hard graft, you can instantly switch your focus to the best teenager in the tournament, Kylian Mbappe. The French attacking midfielder is as hot as a freshly baked croissant and, just like this unequivocal French pastry, is one of France’s proud exports. Mbappe’s skill and calm-headedness belie his age and he could well be France’s trump card, just as the 17-year-old Pele was for Brazil in 1958.

France, Belgium, England and Croatia have made the step up from dark horses to thoroughbred winners as they approach the final straight. In this dash for glory, only the fittest and most daring will survive. Some will stumble and fall while others will gallop towards victory, side by side. It will take a photo finish to decide the champion stallion.

Wouter Pienaar
Sport Journalist

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