St Petersburg — Eden Hazard and a brilliant Belgian generation stand between France and a place in the World Cup final as the countries bring their historic rivalry to Tuesday’s first semifinal in St Petersburg.
Not since 1986 have Belgium made it this far at the World Cup, losing to a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina in Mexico and then going down 4-2 to France in the third-place play-off, the last competitive meeting of the nations.
In the years since, France have won one World Cup and one European Championship, and lost the 2006 World Cup final. Now, with Kylian Mbappe their new standard-bearer, they are dreaming again.
Belgium disappeared from the forefront of the international scene for years before emerging again with their gifted crop.
With Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne, they lost in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals and at the same stage at Euro 2016, but under Roberto Martinez in Russia they have already taken an extra step after stunning Brazil in the last eight in Kazan.
"They are a great team with a very good generation of players who have been playing together for several years," admitted France striker Olivier Giroud, who plays with Hazard and Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea.
"We don’t want to have them taking the mickey out of us. There is a big rivalry between France and Belgium, it’s like a derby match."
Beyond the geographical and linguistic ties, many of the players know each other intimately from the Premier League.
Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku were already close friends before becoming teammates at Manchester United. But Hazard sums up better than anyone the close links between the nations.
Born in the French-speaking part of Belgium, he was a player across the border at Lille, and was the outstanding player in the team that won the French league and cup double in 2011 before moving to Chelsea.
Now he is the talisman in a Belgium team that has won all five games in Russia so far and is undefeated in 24 matches, though as a boy he idolised Zinedine Zidane.
The French will remember what happened when the teams last met, with Belgium tearing them apart in a 4-3 friendly win in Paris in June 2015.
The presence of French World Cup winner Thierry Henry on the Belgian coaching staff as one of Martinez’s assistants adds spice to the occasion.
"Of course I would prefer it if he was with us and he was giving me his advice, but we mustn’t be jealous," said Giroud.
Henry’s old international colleague Didier Deschamps has not won over everybody as France coach, as he continues to favour caution despite being able to call on some of the finest attackers in world football.
Mbappe, still just 19, has already moved clubs for €180m and the Paris Saint-Germain forward announced himself at the World Cup with a brilliant showing in France’s 4-3 win over Argentina in the last 16.
Deschamps’s side were less thrilling but equally efficient as they saw off Uruguay in the quarterfinal. They need to be at their best defensively against the Belgians, and look to Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to get the better of Belgium’s defence.
"To do what he [Mbappe] is doing at his age, I have never seen that, apart from Messi," said Belgium’s Nacer Chadli, scorer of their winning goal against Japan in the last 16.
"We came through the Japan game, then we broke down a barrier by beating Brazil.
"When you beat Brazil you don’t fear anyone."
Chadli could play as a right wing-back for Belgium in the absence of suspended Thomas Meunier, with Thomas Vermaelen possibly starting. France welcome back midfielder Blaise Matuidi after suspension.