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Dublin: 6°C Saturday 10 April 2021

Power ranking the four World Cup semi-finalists

England, Croatia, Belgium and France are all still vying for the illustrious trophy.

THIS IS THE fourth instalment of World Cup power rankings. Read the third here.

4. Croatia (unchanged)

Russia Soccer WCup Russia Croatia Source: Darko Bandic

Croatia have managed to reach the 2018 World Cup semi-finals without winning a single knockout game in normal or extra time. They were impressive in the way they dominated the ball for long periods against Russia and deservedly came through that game despite the fortuitous manner in which they ultimately secured the victory. Yet it will be of concern to manager Zlatko Dalic just how swiftly they folded under the pressure of the hosts’ extra-time onslaught, having worked so hard to establish a lead in the game. What will also be worrying for their supporters is that by far their most complete performance of the tournament so far came back in their second match — the 3-0 destruction of Argentina. They have struggled to emulate that level ever since. Moreover, while England enjoyed a straightforward, comfortable 2-0 quarter-final win over Sweden, the Russia game appeared to take a lot out of Croatia, with several players picking up knocks and struggling badly with fatigue by the end of extra-time.

3. England (up three places)

Russia Soccer WCup Sweden England Source: Frank Augstein

The Croatia-England semi-final is an extremely hard game to call. Of the four teams left, Gareth Southgate’s men have surely had the easiest route to this stage. But you can only beat what’s in front of you, and the Three Lions have done that fairly well so far. Unlike in most of their previous matches, against Croatia, they might have to endure lengthy spells without the ball — a midfield featuring Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic is always going to be stronger than one anchored by Jordan Henderson, who is a good professional, but hardly on the level of the Croatian duo in terms of skill and ability. Nevertheless, two factors would appear to give England the edge. The reason Croatia have struggled to make their dominance count at times could be attributed to a slight lack of cutting edge in the final third, where they do not possess a finisher as lethal as Harry Kane. And granted, England’s defence has not been perfect, but the Three Lions will be licking their lips at how easily Mário Figueira Fernandes was able to head home Alan Dzagoev’s free kick to secure a dramatic late extra-time equaliser for Russia on Saturday night. England have so far scored eight goals from set pieces — the most since Portugal in 1966 — and they will likely be confident of adding to that tally against an unconvincing Croatian backline.

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2. Belgium (up one place)

Russia: FIFA World Cup Russia 2018. Brazil vs Belgium Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Player for player, there is a strong case to be made for Belgium being the best side at the World Cup. Yet for so long, this talented collection of individuals have looked less than the sum of their parts. Following a group stage in which they were rarely tested, Japan gave them an almighty shock in the round of 16, with the underdogs finding themselves 2-0 up with 25 minutes remaining. Some poor defending ultimately cost the Asians dearly, while Belgians’ rescue act didn’t convince many sceptics that they were a team capable of winning the competition. And while they enjoyed similar good fortune in the second half against Brazil with contentious decisions going their way and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois needing to be in top form, beating the country many identified as favourites for the World Cup felt like a serious statement and went against the narrative put forward by naysayers, which portrayed this generation of Belgian players as too ego-driven and unreliable to prevail when the pressure is on. Perhaps, contrary to the critics’ sentiments, they are actually finally starting to fulfil their undoubted potential as a team.

1. France (up one place)

Uruguay v France - FIFA World Cup 2018 - Quarter Final - Nizhny Novgorod Stadium Source: EMPICS Sport

More than anyone else, France have grown into this competition. Victories over Australia and Peru in the group stages were far from convincing, but they have dispatched Argentina and Uruguay impressively in the knockout stages. In Kylian Mbappé, they have arguably the most naturally gifted attacking player left in the competition, while it is difficult to think of a better defensive midfielder in the world than N’Golo Kante and Hugo Lloris is a goalkeeper with a wealth of experience at international level who is widely considered as being in the top bracket of goalkeepers at the elite level. There are question marks over their defence and Didier Deschamps’ tactical acumen (they somehow lost out in the final of Euro 2016 to a plainly inferior Portuguese side). Yet in terms of the spine of the team and depth of talent in every position, no other country at the World Cup can match the French side’s prowess.

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Paul Fennessy

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