Goal-fest possible with France, Belgium

World Cup

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Considering the attacking strength of France and Belgium, there’s potential for a goal-fest when the European neighbors meet in the World Cup semifinals.

There was less at stake the last time the teams last went head-to-head at the World Cup, a 4-2 victory for France in the third-place match in 1986. That was the last competitive match between the two countries but there have been eight international friendlies since.

Belgium won two of those, including the last one: an exhibition three years ago at Stade de France when the Belgians took a three-goal lead five minutes into the second half and held on to win 4-3.

With the second-youngest roster at the World Cup, France has shown no fear and advanced to its first World Cup semifinal since 2006 led by 19-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe and a pair of inexperienced attacking fullbacks in Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez.

“We’re not scared of anyone,” Pavard said. “We’ve been confident from the start and we’re not asking any questions of ourselves.”

Coach Didier Deschamps, who was captain when France won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship, has instilled a steely mentality.

“He motivates the troops with strong words,” Pavard said. “We’re ready to go to war with him.”

Confident coaching

Deschamps made bold decisions to start Pavard on the right and Lucas Hernandez on the left. The pair, both 22, have only 20 international appearances between them but are playing with good composure.

In Belgium, there were doubts about Roberto Martinez’s ability to transfer the country’s individual talent into a collective force. Fans welcomed his arrival in August 2016 with lukewarm enthusiasm because he’d only recently been fired by Everton in the Premier League.

His tenure began with a 2-0 home loss to Spain, but since then Belgium is unbeaten in 23 games and has scored 78 goals — being held scoreless in only one of those games. With former France striker Thierry Henry as an assistant coach, Belgium leads the scoring in Russia with 14 goals in its five World Cup matches.

Meunier out

Belgium must cope without defender Thomas Meunier, whose runs down the flank are a key part of Belgium’s attack.

Meunier is suspended after tripping Brazil star Neymar and earning a second yellow card of the tournament.

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