It’s not a hot take to say these World Cup games are not decided by one player. The whole reason these four teams are still here is because they’ve found a way to put together an on-pitch product greater than the sum of their parts. One-man bands like Lionel Messi’s Argentina have fallen by the wayside as cohesive units with strong mindsets have prevailed.
However, it’s also true that these teams wouldn’t be here without special efforts from individual players. England’s Harry Kane is on his way to the golden boot, and Kylian Mbappé is France’s teenage hero. Sometimes, the outcome of a game comes down to the impact one player has.
Thus, below are the four players for each of France, Belgium, England and Croatia who will ultimately determine the outcomes of the semifinals.
Les Bleus’ defence has been among the best of the World Cup, surrendering just four goals in five matches, and N’Golo Kanté has been a mighty reason why. He’s averaged 2.4 tackles and 3.4 interceptions per game while successfully passing at a rate of 89 per cent. Mbappé has stolen the show and Paul Pogba remains one of the biggest starts in football, but Kanté’s impact on the other end cannot be overlooked.
France face the team with arguably the most impressive showing thus far in Belgium on Tuesday night, and if Les Bleus have any hope of advancing to their first final since 2006, Kanté will need to keep up the work.
Belgium’s attack — made up of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard — has been unstoppable at times. They dismantled Brazil’s defence in the quarterfinals. However, the Red Devils haven’t faced a defence quite like France, and the Chelsea defender will pose a significantly challenge for Belgium.
The rise of N’Golo Kante is something special:
At the time of the last World Cup he was 23 but was preparing for his first season as a Ligue 1 player.
Today he’s a 2 time Premier League winner, an FA Cup winner, has 29 international caps & will start in a World Cup semi-final.
— John Bennett (@JohnBennettBBC) July 10, 2018
The Red Devils will be without right wing-back Thomas Meunier, who will serve a suspension after receiving his second yellow card against Brazil in the quarterfinal, but as long as Eden Hazard does what he does best, it shouldn’t but much of an issue.
Hazard has arguably been the best player in this entire World Cup, and the stats back that up: he ranks among the best in key passes per game (2.8), dribbles per game (5.5) and shots per game (3.3). He’s made a massive impact both as a scorer and passer, having netted two goals and two assists.
Eden Hazard has been the gold standard in the World Cup 2018 pic.twitter.com/2khDiVbAZC
— 🇧🇪 (@HazardStuff_) July 9, 2018
It might be true that Belgium haven’t quite faced a defense with the caliber of France’s, but it’s also true that France haven’t seen an attack as balanced as Belgium’s. And it all flows through the Chelsea star.
With weapons like Lukaku and De Bruyne at his disposal, it’s up to Hazard to win the battle with Pogba in the midfield. That’s what it might come down to if Belgium is to advance.
It’s hard not to give this to Kane, the Tottenham Hotspur gem who leads the World Cup with six goals and is well on his way to securing the golden boot for England. No striker has had the success Kane has in the box in Russia, constantly placing himself in perfect situations and executing on every penalty that comes his way.
But when England play Croatia — when the duo of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic push through the midfield — the Three Lions will need much more than Kane. Croatia has been at least a little bit disappointing this World Cup, averaging just under four shots on goal per match played, but England’s midfield defence will need to be up to the challenge nonetheless.
Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson is a vital part of that midfield, and he has played a key role in England’s tight defence this World Cup. He hasn’t fueled the offense quite the way teammate John Stones has, and he missed a penalty during the Colombia game, but Henderson has more than made up for it on the other end.
Jordan Henderson here has been overlooked due to Pickfords mad save. Blocks the shot, chases the geezer down and then celebrates like a loon after clearing it pic.twitter.com/MIfkHtdqUt
— JS (@vivajoeshearer) July 8, 2018
With an ability to make tackles, hassle oncoming attackers and clear balls, Henderson will need to be up to the challenge if England are to bring it home.
The Croats defeated Russia in penalties to advance to the semifinals, but it wasn’t a flawless victory as they left Sochi with a few key injuries. Goalkeeper Danijel Subašić and right back Šime Vrsaljko both went down with injuries in the victory, and Croatia might not be at full strength for their showdown with the Three Lions.
It’s looking like Subašić is more likely to make a recovery, but a defence lacking Vrsaljko would require others to step up.
If Croatia is to defeat red-hot England, Vedran Ćorluka will need to play excellently. The Lokomotiv Moscow man will likely shift to centre back if Vrsaljko is absent, and Ćorluka will all of a sudden be thrust into the role of a lifetime against England.
After surrendering just two goals in their first four matches, Croatia surrendered two to an unimpressive Russia offense. With two injuries to important players on the defensive side, their chances against England have only been hampered. But a key performance from Ćorluka would make a huge difference.