Preview: France vs. Belgium

A reunion of 2018 World Cup semi-final foes headlines the Euro 2024 last-16 ties, as France and Belgium cross paths in Dusseldorf on Monday evening.

Neither nation showed what they are truly capable of in the group phase, being condemned to unexpected second-placed finishes owing to disappointing final-day draws.

Match preview

With his protective mask in tow, Real Madrid-bound Kylian Mbappe finally broke his Euros duck at the third time of trying in France’s recent showdown with Poland in Group D, crashing home a spot kick early in the second half before the Poles were presented with a 12-yard opportunity of their own.

While Mike Maignan initially denied the stopping-and-starting Robert Lewandowski, the AC Milan shot-stopper was penalised for coming off his line, allowing his Barcelona counterpart to take the same run-up, aim for the same corner and achieve a different, desired outcome in a low-key 1-1 stalemate.

A miffed Maignan was left to vent his frustrations on social media – taking aim at the rules regarding penalties as Lewandowski made his “87th stutter” – as Didier Deschamps’s men were forced to accept the runners-up place thanks to Austria’s sensational beating of the Netherlands.

As Ralf Rangnick’s side prepare to take on Turkey in the friendlier side of the draw, an under-performing France have several gargantuan obstacles in their way just to reach the final; Portugal, Germany and Spain are all in the same last-16 bracket.

Furthermore, France went through the entire group stage without scoring a single goal from open play – having 47 such attempts without making the net bulge – and five of their last six matches at the European Championships have ended level after 90 minutes.

Nevertheless, one goal conceded across the group stage was the joint second-best defensive record of its kind – only behind an unbroken Spain – and Lewandowski’s retaken spot kick is the only effort that Deschamps’s men have shipped in their last five games across all tournaments.

Such praiseworthy defensive statistics make for grim reading for a Belgium side who failed to score in two of their three affairs in Group E, where all four sides incredibly finished on the same amount of points, unsurprisingly a European Championship first in the men’s game.

Domenico Tedesco’s men appeared to have rediscovered their attacking touch in a 2-0 beating of Romania on matchday two, only to be stunted in a goalless draw versus Ukraine on Wednesday, where they had both Koen Casteels and their visitors’ wastefulness to thank for saving their Euros bacon.

As the eliminated Blue and Yellow departed in dejection, Belgium sneaked through in second spot behind Romania and their superior goal difference, but Tedesco has many an attacking conundrum to solve after his side managed just two goals across the group stage; only one-strike Serbia netted fewer.

While Mbappe may finally be off the mark, the luckless Romelu Lukaku has yet to open his Euro 2024 account but can take solace from the fact that only one of the Red Devils’ last 18 matches in all tournaments has ended in defeat, even if that did come just a fortnight ago to the plucky Slovakians.

A third-straight Euros knockout appearance now awaits the Belgians, who have progressed from each of their last four last-16 games at major tournaments since being eliminated by eventual winners Brazil at the 2002 World Cup; a positive omen for Deschamps’s squad if they can prevail on Monday.

Frequent foes of France over the past century, Belgium suffered 2018 World Cup semi-final heartbreak in a 1-0 loss before also going down 3-2 to Deschamps’s men in a 2021 Nations League semi-final, but Portugal or Slovenia will await the Red Devils if they can avenge those Bleus blues.

Team News

Having completed 90 minutes against Poland with no ill-effects, Mbappe will undoubtedly be fine to spearhead the France charge here, and Deschamps is expected to have every single one of his troops available to him.

The France boss opted to demote Antoine Griezmann to the bench for the final Group D draw, but an immediate return to the first XI is on the cards for the Atletico Madrid man, whose reinstatement should see France revert to their 4-2-3-1 shape.

Who is sacrificed for Griezmann is the subject of much speculation, but Adrien Rabiot has reportedly been rehearsing on the left during training, so Bradley Barcola will likely be demoted to the bench.

In addition, Deschamps is also expected to axe the under-performing Ousmane Dembele and instead go for a 4-3-1-2 formation, which would see Marcus Thuram reinstated to the tip of the attack alongside Mbappe.

Liverpool centre-back Ibrahima Konate suffered a recent knee injury scare, but there would have been no chance of the defender displacing William Saliba or Dayot Upamecano either way.

Sticking with the theme of wingers, Belgium head coach Tedesco will have Dodi Lukebakio back at his disposal on Monday following his suspension and could recall the Sevilla man to the XI at the expense of Leandro Trossard, who was ineffective against Ukraine, but Yannick Carrasco was a threat last time out and is a contender too.

Axel Witsel (adductor) and Thomas Meunier (thigh) remain the only two injury concerns for Tedesco to contend with, and while both are heading in the right direction with their respective recoveries, neither should be involved in Dusseldorf.

Tedesco’s defensive dilemma would be further complicated if Wout Faes picks up a suspension-inducing yellow card on Monday, but the Leicester City man did himself justice last week with a goal-saving block to deny Ukraine’s Artem Dovbyk and is a guaranteed starter regardless.

France possible starting lineup:
Maignan; Kounde, Saliba, Upamecano, Hernandez; Kante, Tchouameni, Rabiot; Griezmann; Thuram, Mbappe

Belgium possible starting lineup:
Casteels; Castagne, Faes, Vertonghen, Theate; Tielemans, Onana; Doku, De Bruyne, Carrasco; Lukaku

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