Preview: World Cup final: France vs. Croatia
Preview: World Cup final: France vs. Croatia
The 2018 World Cup final takes place at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday with France facing Croatia in Moscow.
France are bidding for their second World Cup crown after lifting the trophy in 1998, whereas Croatia are gracing the biggest stage for the first time and would be one of the most surprising winners in the competition’s history.
The World Cup has provided the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for France over the past 20 years, and to have even reached this stage after their rollercoaster journey is an achievement in itself.
Since their historic success on home soil in 1998, France have been knocked out in the group stages without scoring a goal in 2002, reached the final in 2006 and been knocked out again in the groups in 2010, when things got so bad that the players even went on strike during the tournament.
The current crop of players have the ability to ensure that the next decade or so is nowhere near as turbulent, though, with incredible strength in depth, some of the world’s best young players and quality in every area of the pitch.
France can already consider themselves among the major powers in world football – no nation has made it to as many World Cup finals over the past 20 years, after all – but the signs are that they will only get better over the coming years too, having already reached the final of Euro 2016 prior to Sunday’s showdown.
Didier Deschamps is already on the cusp of history as he bids to become only the third man after Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager, and this is a French team moulded largely in his own image – robust, tenacious and difficult to break down.
Belgium discovered that to their detriment in the semi-finals as their free-scoring attack – the highest scorers at this World Cup – failed to find a way past the French defence, with Les Bleus keeping a fourth clean sheet of the tournament.
Samuel Umtiti scored the only goal in that game, and parallels will no doubt be drawn to Lilian Thuram’s shock brace in the 1998 semi-final which saw France past Croatia, incidentally, on their way to the trophy; those two goals proved to be the only ones Thuram scored in his 142 international appearances.
What’s more, Umtiti was the third defender to score for France at this summer’s World Cup – from five different goalscorers – and the last time three French defenders scored in a single tournament was that victorious 1998 campaign.
The omens are there for Les Bleus, then, but it has not all been plain-sailing up to this stage; France needed a controversial penalty and an own goal to overcome Australia in their opening match before edging past Peru and drawing with Denmark to top Group C.
A seven-goal thriller with Argentina followed before a goalkeeping error helped them on their way to a 2-0 win over Uruguay in the quarter-finals, setting up that 1-0 victory over Belgium in the last four.
With the exception of the Argentina match, France have relied on defensive solidity more than attacking flair, but with Golden Ball contender Kylian Mbappe and the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Nabil Fekir in their ranks they are certainly capable of turning on the style in the final third should the need arise.
The only time France have needed to chase a game at this World Cup they succeeded quickly, though, with Argentina leading for less than 10 minutes before France restored parity and soon regained their lead. No other team has led Les Bleus at any point during this tournament.
The talent at Deschamps’s disposal meant that his side were always among the favourites to lift the trophy this summer, and they might have expected higher-profile opposition than Croatia in the final too, so they will know that Sunday is a huge chance to kick off a period of dominance which could last for the foreseeable future.
Recent form: WWDWWW
Croatia’s journey to the World Cup final has been described as a sporting miracle, and with the talent they have in their team it is easy to overlook just how big an achievement it is.
With a population of just over four million people – almost 13 times smaller than England – Croatia are only the 13th different nation to have reached the World Cup final, and by far the smallest.
The last two first-time finalists have both gone on to lift the trophy – France themselves in 1998 and Spain in 2010 – but the odds will once again be against Croatia when they take on such a star-studded opponent on Sunday.
There is no getting away from the fact that Croatia have had a kind route all the way to the final, with most of the pre-tournament favourites being knocked out by other teams before Croatia had to face them.
Indeed, arguably the biggest test they have faced came in the group stages against Argentina, when they ran out convincing 3-0 winners over Lionel Messi and co – also beating Nigeria and Iceland to top Group D.
It has been a slog since the group stages, though, with Zlatko Dalic’s side needing penalties to overcome Denmark and Russia before coming from behind to break English hearts after extra time in Wednesday’s semi-final.
Croatia rode their luck a little in that semi-final, with England missing a number of chances which could have put the game to bed before half time, but they fought back and showed the character which has been a feature of their campaign so far.
Dalic’s side have overcome early goals against Denmark and England in the knockout stages and had to bounce back from a 115th-minute equaliser against hosts Russia before beating them in the penalty shootout, and remarkably they still looked like the team with the most energy during the latter stages of their semi-final.
Indeed, Croatia are the first team to have reached the World Cup final despite trailing in all three of their knockout games and could also become the first team in World Cup history to play in extra time four times at a single tournament, should Sunday’s match go the distance.
There is no doubting their heart, then, and they have the smatterings of world-class talent to go with it – from Luka Modric, who is perhaps Mbappe’s only challenger for the Golden Ball, and Ivan Rakitic to Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic.
Whether that quartet can have as much of an impact against France remains to be seen – it certainly appears to be the best midfield and defence they have come up against so far – but they have made it this far on merit and should they pick up one more victory then their feat will go down alongside the likes of Greece 2004 and even Leicester City in 2015-16.
Recent form: WWWWWW
All eyes will be on Mbappe on Sunday as the youngster looks to become only the second teenager after Pele to score in a World Cup final.
Doing so would be a fitting finale to a stunning tournament from the Paris Saint-Germain attacker, and while it is far too soon to suggest that he may go on to enjoy a career like Pele’s, rarely does such a prodigious talent emerge and then perform on the biggest stage.
Such has been Mbappe’s impact that others have had to play the supporting act, including Griezmann, who has directly contributed to 11 goals in nine knockout games at major tournaments – more than any French player in the past 50 years.
Olivier Giroud has been nowhere near as prolific in front of goal, but he is expected to keep his place in the side despite failing to hit the target with any of his 13 shots at this summer’s tournament.
The main injury doubt for France surrounds Blaise Matuidi, who was forced off against Belgium following a collision with Eden Hazard. However, the midfielder is expected to start after being cleared of concussion, and France could therefore name an unchanged side from the semi-final.
For Croatia to do the same, Dalic must first be satisfied that his players have fully recovered from a gruelling schedule which has seen them play 120 minutes three times in the space of 10 days.
Momentum seemed to give the Croatian players an extra boost against England and, if anything, they appeared to get stronger as the game wore on, so Dalic is unlikely to make any changes if he can avoid it.
There are no new injury concerns for his side after Sime Vrsaljko and Danijel Subasic came through the England game unscathed, and Marcelo Brozovic’s performance in the semi-final is expected to have earned him another starting spot for the final.
Perisic was Croatia’s main dangerman against England and he has now been involved in 10 goals at major tournaments, which is a joint-national record alongside 1998 top-scorer Davor Suker.
While Suker was the talisman when Croatia finished third 20 years ago, Modric has taken on that role now and he has created 16 chances at this World Cup – twice as many as any of his teammates.
France possible starting lineup:
Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez; Kante, Pogba, Mbappe, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud
Croatia possible starting lineup:
Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic; Rebic, Modric, Brozovic, Rakitic, Perisic; Mandzukic
Head To Head
France have never lost in their five previous meetings with Croatia, winning three of those including the most high-profile one, which came in the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup.
Thuram scored twice in that match as France came from a goal down to win 2-1 en route to the trophy, and their only other meeting at a major tournament was a 2-2 draw at Euro 2004.
The two sides have only met once since that latter contest, and that ended in a goalless friendly stalemate at the Stade de France in March 2011.