WATCH: Belgium's Vermaelen on France's 'game changer' Mbappe
Belgium are confident they can win the World Cup, defender Thomas Vermaelen said on Sunday, in the first direct acknowledgement of the team's belief in their ability to emerge triumphant in Russia.
While other players have kept up a steady mantra of taking the tournament one game at a time, the 32-year-old defender made clear his vista was firmly focused on next Sunday's final at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
"Of course, we can be proud so far of how we performed in this World Cup, reaching the semi-finals is a big achievement, but, and I think we want to go further now and we don't give up, and I think we have to believe in our chances to get to the final and eventually win it," Vermaelen said.
Friday's 2-1 victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals followed a rousing come-from-behind win over Japan, where Belgium found themselves two goals behind with 30 minutes to play but won 3-2 in the last 16.
Belgium have scored 14 goals in five matches and were hugely impressive in their 2-1 quarter-final victory over Brazil, with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne combining to devastating effect to oust the five-time world champions.
In contrast, France sleep-walked through the group stages, eking out wins over Australia and Peru before a stultifying 0-0 draw with Denmark.
If they underwhelmed in the group phase, Didier Deschamps' side have transformed into genuine World Cup contenders in the knockout stages.
A 4-3 demolition of Argentina inspired by the electric pace of Kylian Mbappe likely ended Lionel Messi's hopes of ever getting his hands on the trophy, while Uruguay were comfortably dispatched 2-0 in the quarters.
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Vermaelen identified Mbappe, who has netted three times at the World Cup, as France's dangerman, saying the Paris Saint-Germain speedster can change a game "in a second". However, the versatile Barcelona defender said Les Bleus have threats all over the pitch, and they must look to nullify all of them if Belgium want to reach Sunday's showpiece final in Moscow.
"Well everyone is talking about Mbappe at the moment, he is having a good tournament, the qualities he has, I mean he can change the game within a second, so it is not going to be easy," Vermaelen said.
"But they have more [players with] qualities, even when he got changed, you have [Ousmane] Dembele who can come on, I mean I know him very well, he can be very dangerous, and [Olivier] Giroud has different qualities, who can be dangerous, very dangerous in the box, so … but for me at the moment it would be Mbappe who is the strongest.
"Maybe you forget about [N'Golo] Kanté who is a defensive midfield and very important so it is difficult to pick out one player, but a player who can change the game is Mbappe."
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The irony of Thierry Henry, one of France's all-time soccer greats, plotting his own country's downfall at the World Cup has not been lost on the Belgian team.
When France go up against Belgium in the World Cup semi-final at the Saint Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday, the 40-year-old Henry will be on the opposing bench, looking to stop his country from advancing to Sunday's final.
Henry, who scored 51 goals in 123 international appearances, played for France at four World Cups. He won the tournament on home soil in 1998, was a runner-up in 2006 and also competed in 2002 and 2010.
But for the last two years he has been serving as one of Belgium manager Roberto Martinez's assistants, his first foray into coaching and seemingly an inspired choice if the rave reviews from the Belgian players are anything to go by.
"He brings a lot of experience to the team, especially in tournaments, he has won the Euros, he has won the World Cup, so for us it is very important," Vermaelen said.
"A lot of players look up to him, he is a legend in football and you can see that, and especially to the strikers a lot of inside information, that helps them, so just his experience you know, to us it is very important."