Sport360 previews the World Cup 2018 final between favourites France and Croatia
Here are the talking points ahead of football’s grandest fixture, at Moscow’s 78,011-capacity Luzhniki Stadium.
HEAVYWEIGHT AGAINST UNDERDOG
The contrast between the nations is stark.
Croatia declared independence in 1991 and are bidding to claim their first major international trophy. Their only previous trip to the World Cup’s knockouts came 20 years ago, when a double from legendary right-back Lilian Thuram – his 142 caps contain no more goals – earned hosts France a 2-1, come-from-behind semi-final triumph.
Les Bleus have been in three of the last six global showpieces, gaining glory at Stade de France in 1998. They also surprisingly lost Euro 2016’s decider 1-0 on home soil to a Portugal side who missed injured superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo after the 25-minute mark.
This disparity continues to the dugout, where France’s Didier Deschamps is bidding to become just the third person to win the World Cup as a player and head coach.
Unifying Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic has been in charge for the past nine months, his last job coming at Al Ain from March 2014-January 2017. He successfully gained qualification via the play-offs after he inherited a fragmented squad from the divisive Ante Cacic.
Real Madrid conductor Luka Modric, Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Juventus warrior Mario Mandzukic stand-up to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain starlet Kylian Mbappe, Manchester United No6 Paul Pogba and Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann.
But the CIES Football Observatory handed France’s squad a leading valuation of €1.4 billion, way ahead of Croatia’s €416 million in 10th place.
Vatreni (The Blazers) are the lowest-ranked country on record to make the final.
They are the first team since England in 1990 whose three knockout matches have gone to extra time. No other side at World Cups has recovered from 1-0 down to advance from the round of 16, quarter-final and semi-final.
France’s squad averages 283 minutes-per-man in Russia. For their opponents, this figure rises to 331. With a population of four million, Croatia are also the smallest nation to make the decider since Uruguay in 1950.
However, not all hope of an upset is lost. Propitiously, Uruguay then inflicted the ‘Maracanazo’ on organisers Brazil and prevailed.
This running has seen holders Germany defeated by Mexico and South Korea, exiting ignominiously in last place from Group F. The 2010 champions Spain lost on penalties to lowly ranked hosts Russia in the round of 16, plus unfancied England made the last-four.
Croatia were not even tipped to proceed that far. Now, they must seize this shot at history.
IT’S NOT JUST THE MBAPPE V MODRIC SHOW
A major narrative coming into this grandstand event is the battle between rising PSG superstar Mbappe and Madrid metronome Modric.
It’s one which could decide the destiny of the World Cup, plus break the decade-long duopoly Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have held on the Ballon d’Or.
But the aforementioned pair will be the first to acknowledge that key members of each support cast will provide the foundations for them to prosper.
In Juventus’ Blaise Matuidi and Internazionale’s Marcelo Brozovic, two of the globe’s premier defensive-minded midfielders will be on show.
Matuidi was introduced to the France XI for the 1-0 win against Peru, their second commitment in Group C. His tireless drive as the man marker has added necessary balance.
It’s allowed Pogba the security to flourish as a box-to-box midfielder, plus aid the team’s transition in and out of possession from a defensive 4-2-3-1 to an offensive 4-4-2 formation.
Croatia have lacked fluidity whenever Brozovic has started from the bench, such as the opening 2-0 win against Nigeria and quarter-final against Russia.
His presence absolves Modric of most defensive duties and Rakitic of some.
WHERE IT WILL BE WON AND LOST
The themes of this final are easy to spot.
France’s four clean sheets is the most in the competition. The opening/only goal in both the quarter-final – versus Uruguay – and semi-final – versus Belgium – were scored from a set-piece by a centre-back.
Griezmann has three strikes, but sporadically sparkled. Centre forward Olivier Giroud has yet to register a shot on target from 465 minutes of action.
Only when 2-1 down against ramshackle Argentina in the round of 16 have France moved into top gear. Then, three goals followed in nine minutes.
As witnessed when checking Belgium’s momentum in the last-four, Deschamps minimises risk and does the minimum to win.
Croatia exert control in midfield through Brozovic, Rakitic and Modric. Right-back Sime Vrsaljko is tasked with advancing from deep, coming up with major plays in the previous two rounds.
Wide men Ivan Perisic – who got a goal and assist on Wednesday versus England – and Ante Rebic are told to attack the penalty box. Their stature and pace will worry France’s full-backs.
Croatia average more possession (54.5/51.3 per cent) and shots per game (16.5/12.3) in Russia. Disciplined France hold the edge in tackles per game (16.7/14.7) and pass accuracy (82.9/80.8 per cent).
In boxing, styles make fights. This box-office bout at the Luzhniki should be worthy of the occasion.