World Cup 2018

Contrasting No.10s pivotal to European semi-final showdown

 • by Matt Gault
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Hang in there. This exhilarating endurance test of a World Cup is nearly over.

We don’t want it to be over, of course, but there is a part of us that yearns for the weekly mundanities of the Premier League slog after having been exposed to madness in Moscow and chaos in Kazan.

It’s almost been too good but, in fact, there is a distinct possibility it’s about to get even better.

Before England meet Croatia on Wednesday night, there is the small matter of France and Belgium in one of the most mouthwatering semi-finals imaginable.

Yes, on Tuesday, Les Bleus will try to reach their third final in 20 years. De Rode Duivels, on the other hand, will try to reach the first in the country’s history.

As with any World Cup semi-final worth its salt, Belgium v France is dripping with intrigue and brimming with world-class talent.

Two men, however, seem better positioned than the rest to become national heroes. They both wear the number 10 and are both dynamite attacking talents, but the similarities end there.

We are, of course, talking about Kylian Mbappé and Eden Hazard.

France and Belgium boast a dazzling array of attacking talent but there will be particular emphasis on their number tens, both of whom have sparkled in Russia.

Magnificent Mbappé

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that the Argentine defenders are still shaking ten days on from being torn asunder by Mbappé in full-flight.

The 19-year-old’s turbo-charged performance against the increasingly dishevelled and helpless South Americans offered an exhilarating glimpse of how he can reduce defenders to quivering wrecks.

If the Paris Saint-Germain starlet finds a similar gear in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday night, Belgium may be in trouble.

The hope for this game is that both teams go hell for leather, more France v Argentina than France v Uruguay. They don’t really suit defending deep, after all. Belgium were at their best when they eviscerated Brazil on the break while France have shown how ruthless they can be when a game gets stretched.

Mbappé was not afforded the same amount of space against Uruguay who, led by Diego Godín and José Giménez, did their best to subdue the flying teenager.

However, with Brazil left-back Marcelo having exposed Thomas Meunier’s defensive shortcomings and Vincent Kompany or Jan Vertonghen not having a prayer in a foot race against him, Mbappé will be relishing the prospect of hurting the Belgians in a similar manner to Argentina.

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In his five appearances at this tournament, Mbappé is fourth in successful take-ons per 90 with 5.33 while he has averaged the same amount of touches in the opposition penalty box. His post-shot xG of 1.81 is the second-highest of the players still in the tournament, with only Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku ahead of him.

Mbappé must not have believed his luck against Argentina. With a high-line and slow defenders, Jorge Sampaoli exposed his players to Mbappé’s searing pace.

Roberto Martínez won’t be quite that absent-minded. At least, we don’t think he will be. The Spaniard’s almost giddy enthusiasm for vibrant, attacking football often produced embarrassing results at Wigan Athletic and Everton but, in Russia, Martínez has portrayed tactical flexibility, a flexibility informed by having studied opponents.

Considering it is impossible to ignore Mbappé, Martínez will have devoted a sizeable portion of his pre-game preparation to Operation Crush Kylian (without actually crushing him, of course).

It’s on Mbappé to replicate his Argentina-shredding form in a much more testing environment against a much more organised unit.

Hypnotic Hazard

Not to be outdone, Hazard routinely outshone Neymar in Belgium’s quarter-final triumph over Brazil and will be confident of leaving Mbappé in the shadows too.

The Real Madrid transfer target has mesmeric throughout Belgium’s campaign, topping the successful take-ons category with 5.85 per 90 minutes (including ten against Brazil). The Chelsea forward has also averaged 9.58 touches in the opposition penalty box and 2.13 open play key passes.

Against Brazil, Hazard was simply unstoppable, constantly drawing defenders towards the ball before spinning away and linking up with either Kevin De Bruyne or Lukaku.

Hazard is a different number ten to Mbappé. Whereas the young Frenchman’s game is built on blistering acceleration, those long, powerful strides helping him breeze past defenders, Hazard is more artful, relying on his low centre of gravity and close control to dodge players, not blitz them.

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Hazard’s skills are as effective, however, in creating space and opening up defences, as evidenced against Brazil, turning poor Fagner inside-out and cutting inside to link-up with De Bruyne and Lukaku in Martínez’s 4-3-3.

The concern surrounding Hazard is that he will have shattered himself. Like the rest of his teammates, the 27-year-old ran himself into the ground in Kazan during a quarter-final of white-hot intensity.

Understandably, Hazard was spent by the end of Friday night’s game and it remains to be seen if he has recovered sufficiently for the biggest game in his nation’s history.

Mbappé had a less enervating experience against Uruguay but the spotlight remains fixated on the teenager, especially with Antoine Griezmann not shining and Olivier Giroud not scoring.

They are different but equally thrilling and, come Tuesday night, one feels either Mbappé or Hazard will assume a starring role in what is poised to be a breathless semi-final.

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