Sport360 picks out the key battles ahead of the World Cup 2018 final between France and Croatia
After 63 matches across a month of enhtralling action, the World Cup 2018 final is almost upon us.
Here, we pick out the key battles before France and Croatia meet on Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium:
KYLIAN MBAPPE v LUKA MODRIC
The dawn of a new era seemingly awaits for football.
With Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi gone by the round of 16, not since Kaka in 2007 has the identity of the Ballon D’or winner been so open. France teenager Kylian Mbappe represents the electric face of the future after his displays in Russia.
The 19-year-old’s brace against Argentina stands as the highlight. This was history in the making, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward becoming the youngest player to score twice in a World Cup game since the incomparable Pele in 1958.
Defences have been terrorised in patches since. A state of affairs that isn’t helped by boss Didier Deschamps’ safety-first tactics.
Steal the show on Sunday and he could steal the Ballon d’Or.
An outstanding career has been building up to this point.
Modric, 32, has been a centre midfielder par excellence in Russia and is a top contender for the Golden Ball. By the completion of the semi-finals, he led the way in the tournament for: distance covered (63 kilometres), minutes played (604) and the most accurate set-pieces taken (30).
This number is added to by the fact that his two goals makes him Croatia’s joint-leading scorer, plus he’d created the fourth-most chances at the event with 16.
France midfielders Blaise Matuidi and N’Golo Kante will be tasked with keeping Modric quiet. A task no team has managed to complete in Russia during the last month.
PAUL POGBA v IVAN RAKITIC
Accommodating the free-wheeling talents of Paul Pogba has been a demanding task, for club and country.
The former holder of the world’s-most-expensive-player tag underwhelmed at Euro 2016 in a deep role and in a number of stations for Manchester United. But at last in Russia, the utilisation of anchor man Kante and ubiquitous marker Matuidi has freed him up to perform a box-to-box role.
Pogba’s average per game of 1.6 key passes is the best among the established XI, plus he’s been fouled a leading 2.8 times per match. These are traits necessary to defeat Croatia.
Ivan Rakitic has selflessly performed a support role in midfield, despite his exalted standing at Barcelona.
He’s either sat deep with the peerless Modric, or moved slightly further up when defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic has been present.
Of most interest to boss Zlatko Dalic will be Rakitic’s big-game poise. His pedigree at Barca has been exemplified by calmly dispatching the winning penalty in shootouts against Denmark and Russia.
OLIVIER GIROUD v MARIO MANDZUKIC
Mario Mandzukic remains the marathon man for Croatia.
His warrior instincts up top for his nation were on show, once again, in the semi-final against England. After being bravely crocked in a collision with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford during extra time, the Juventus man dusted himself off and was awake to John Stones’ error to lash in the winner.
At 32-years old, he’s toiled during three-successive added periods. But a tally of two goals and one assists points to his continued value.
France’s Olivier Giroud would love such statistics.
The centre forward currently sits on zero shots on target from 465 minutes of action in Russia. He’s even embraced comparisons with infamously goalless centre forward Stephen Guivarc’h when Les Bleus lifted the trophy back in 1998.
Giroud’s propensity to hold up the ball is cherished by Deschamps. This means it will be a huge shock if he is dropped in Moscow, no matter his inability to trouble the scorers.