16:00 BST, Sunday 15th July, Luzhniki Stadium (Moscow, Russia), ITV & BBC
After 62 games, 159 goals and staggeringly only one goalless draw way back in the group stages, the Russian World Cup reaches its conclusion. The culmination of a fantastic summer of football in which a majority of the favourites witnessed early exits and saw their dreams turn to ashes. The crowning game that could see the underdog triumph.
After knocking out Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium, France – who won their first and only World Cup in 1998 – are seeking their second world title. Revenge for the penalty heartbreak of the 2006 final in Berlin. Redemption for a defeat only two years ago that saw them lose the Euros on home soil to a nation of similar stature to Croatia.
Croatia, by contrast, are in their first-ever World Cup final in just their fifth tournament appearance. Much was made of England’s triumph in the last eight to reach their first semi-final since 1990, but the fact of the matter was that Croatia weren’t even an independent nation at the time, such has been their dramatic rise on the international stage. “There will be 4.5 million players on the pitch,” Ivan Rakitic said, as Croatia gear up for their biggest game in history.
Is this the year of the underdogs? Or will normal service resume with a French victory?
Last Time Out
France 1-0 Belgium
1998 world champions France edged past Belgium in a cagey semi-final, as Barcelona centre back Samuel Umtiti headed Les Bleus into their first final for 12 years, their third overall.
Although France spent most of the game having to defend deep against Belgium, they made the most of their limited opportunities – despite Olivier Giroud wastefully spurning three clear-cut chances – and, again, took advantage of their set piece strength, with Umtiti beating Marouane Fellaini in the air from Antoine Griezmann’s corner.
This was the 69th goal scored from a set piece in Russia, whilst Griezmann has now been involved in 20 goals for France in his previous 20 appearances – 12 goals, eight assists.
The defeat ended Belgium’s 24-game unbeaten run as the functionality of France overcame the flair of Roberto Martinez’s ‘golden generation.’ Romelu Lukaku was stifled by the excellent Umtiti and Raphael Varane, whilst Kevin De Bruyne was unable to exert his influence on proceedings.
It’s telling that despite having 64% of possession, the Red Devils managed nine shots – ten fewer than the French – with only a third of those finding the target.
Croatia 2-1 England [A.E.T.]
It was one game too far for the Three Lions as a late Mario Mandzukic goal brought their World Cup hopes to an agonising close, as Croatia progress to Sunday’s final showdown with France at their expense – their first in five World Cup appearances.
Kieran Trippier – scoring England’s first goal from a direct free kick at a World Cup since David Beckham in 2006 – put the Three Lions ahead in the fifth minute, but they looked a spent force as the game wore on and Croatia grew stronger.
England managed just one further shot on target compared to the seven times Croatia peppered Jordan Pickford’s goal.
Croatia gained momentum and Ivan Perisic restored parity as he got in front of Kyle Walker, before hitting the post shortly after, with Mandzukic, too, forcing a save from Pickford. England rapidly faded under pressure and the mental burden was clear to see when the Juventus striker reacted quicker than John Stones to put Croatia ahead in the 108th minute.
England had nothing left to give as a jubilant Croatia – spearheaded by the wonderful Luka Modric – saw out the game.
Didier Deschamps opted for continuity with his team selection against Belgium, with Blaise Matuidi again marshalling that left flank.
But the big question is whether Olivier Giroud will keep his place. He was guilty of profligacy in the semi-final, and Deschamps might select a forward he can trust to convert his chances on the first time of asking.
As a result, Giroud could make way for Ousmane Dembele, who will take pride of place on the right flank, with Kylian Mbappe moving to the centre.
After playing in three consecutive fixtures that have run into extra time – two of which went to penalties – Zlatko Dalic must be tempted to make some changes.
However, Croatia looked impressive with Marcelo Brozovic back in the side, sitting behind Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, so Dalic is unlikely to change the 4-1-4-1 system that’s proven effective.
Sime Vrsaljko may miss out as Atletico Madrid grow increasingly concerned about his involvement after sustaining an injury against Russia. Other than that, no changes are expected.
Key Battle: Lucas Hernandez (France) vs Sime Vrsaljko (Croatia)
Whilst Luka Modric conducts the Croatian orchestra and has been absolutely instrumental in their run to the final – and will be so again on Sunday – there’s another area of the pitch that Dalic should look to exploit.
Against England, right back Sime Vrsaljko became crucial as the game wore on. With just Ashley Young patrolling the entirety of England’s left, Vrsaljko was able to overlap Ante Rebic and create a two on one down Croatia’s right. Hence, he found space and provided the cross for Ivan Perisic’s equaliser.
Whilst Didier Deschamps is, perhaps, not as naïve as Gareth Southgate, and deploys Blaise Matuidi to this end to protect Lucas Hernandez, the French left is, nonetheless, a weakness.
If Rebic covers those moments Vrsaljko chooses to push forward, there’s every chance the right back can take advantage of Hernandez’s defensive vulnerability and the subsequent space left in behind, using his crossing to find Perisic and Mario Mandzukic. Particularly on the counter-attack after France commit numbers forward, Croatia could find joy down this flank.
The myth of fatigue
Despite playing consecutive 120-minute knockout games – both of which went to penalties – Croatia, if anything, grew in strength the longer the semi-final wore on. As England clearly struggled from both mental and physical exhaustion, Croatia could take advantage, despite not making their first substitution until the 95th minute.
Modric, particularly, could grasp firm control of proceedings and conduct England to his own Croatian tune throughout extra time. It made him all the more brilliant to watch as he masterfully made the Three Lions bend every which way.
KEY STAT: Luka Modric has run 39.1 miles at the World Cup, more than any other player.
France, therefore, cannot make the same mistake England did in assuming that Croatia will suffer from fatigue. As proven on Wednesday, it wasn’t the case and, coupled with the raw adrenaline of Sunday’s occasion, Croatia will be a bundle of energy.
The battle for control
Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Two midfields that leaves opponents quaking in their boots. But what happens when the duos come to face-to-face in a World Cup final?
As the game progressed, Modric and Rakitic had a lot of joy against the Jordan Henderson single pivot, but Kante and Pogba are an entirely different prospect. Kante has been phenomenal this tournament, whilst Pogba, too, has demonstrated his ability to be defensively disciplined in a double pivot. Croatia, therefore, will struggle to break them down.
The aim for Kante and Pogba, though, is to ensure Modric and Rakitic don’t get too much time and space on the ball, by closing them down quickly if possession changes hands.
France utilised transitions to beat Belgium and central to that was Pogba and Kante’s performances in breaking up play and releasing their forwards, which Deschamps will be encouraging them to repeat.
Prediction: France 1-0 Croatia
This game very much depends on who gets the first goal. If France start brightly and can score within the opening 20 minutes, then they’re likely to retreat into their compact shape and see out a 1-0 victory, with potential for a second on the break as Croatia chase the game. If Croatia score first, by contrast, France will have to play expansively. Expect this to be a cagey, low-scoring affair, however.
Listen to the RealSport football writers review the World Cup semi-finals and preview the Sunday’s final in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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