It all comes down to this. Just 90 minutes (or 120, if Croatia’s form holds) of football remains in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and the tournament’s last match promises to be a thriller. On one side, France are looking to add to their 1998 triumph, and their consistency has ensured they go in as favourites. Then there’s Croatia. They have needed extra time to see off all of their knockout stage opponents, and they have overcome situations in which lesser sides would have wilted. Now, in pursuit of their first World Cup title, Croatia have a side with incredible resolve and plenty of talent, and they could easily knock off the dangerous French. Whatever the outcome, this one should provide plenty of excitement.
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Behich 81 og), Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
France 1 (Mbappé 34), Peru 0
Denmark 0, France 0
Round of 16
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68), Argentina 3 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
France 1 (Umtiti 51), Belgium 0
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen), Nigeria 0
Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Iceland 1 (G Sigurðsson 76 pen), Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Round of 16
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4), Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115), Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Croatia 2 (Perišić 68, Mandžukić 109), England 1 (Trippier 5) (a.e.t)
France have only made minor strategic adjustments over the course of this tournament, and Didier Deschamps isn’t the kind of coach to make wholesale changes before such a big match. The defence of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, centre-backs Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane and full-backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández has grown into this tournament, and France will rely on their continued solidity. In midfield, brash midfield enforcer Paul Pogba and unassuming defensive foil N’Golo Kanté complement each other perfectly, and the front three of Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé is sure to give Croatia’s defence plenty of problems.
Zlatko Dalić is not likely to change Croatia’s shape for the match, but he may have to make some changes in light of Croatia’s increasing injury toll. Left-back Ivan Strinić and semi-final hero Ivan Perišić have been added to the burgeoning injury list, but given Croatia’s record at this tournament (three players carried injuries into their semi-final) it seems likely that they will attempt to play through the pain. Croatia will attempt to control possession against the French, and they will be relying on star midfielders Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić to play the ball through the French defence. Either Marcelo Brozović or Andrej Kramarić will join the pair in the middle, with Brozović representing a more defensive option and Kramarić providing an extra attacker alongside Perišić, Ante Rebić and Mario Mandžukić. The identity of the third member of the midfield trio will give a clear indication of Croatia’s approach to the match.
1. Can Croatia survive another extra time?
Croatia’s players have shown remarkable mental and physical endurance on their way to the final, but three marathon matches in a row have taken their toll. With plenty of injuries and shorter turnarounds than their opponents, another extra time may just push them over the edge. The French are sure to be fresher, having won all their knockout matches in 90 minutes and having progressed with little fuss, and it will be up to Croatia’s leaders to ensure that they are able to hold on should the game go the distance. Of course, the same things were said about Croatia before their semi-final, so they can’t be written off.
2. Who will win the midfield?
The midfield battle may be the most crucial aspect of this game. France’s midfield is strong, with Kanté and Pogba complementing each other well and providing defensive solidity and attacking flair. For the first time in this tournament, however, they will clash with a midfield that is possibly their equal. Modrić and Rakitić are experienced campaigners, and if both of them fire there could be plenty of trouble for the French. Kanté may be jokingly renowned for his apparent ability to be in two places at once, but if the Croatian midfield is on song it may be too great a task for France’s holding midfielder. The team that claims the upper hand in midfield will go a long way to winning the game.
3. Can Croatia handle France’s pace?
England may have looked toothless for large periods of their semi-final clash with Croatia, but they did come close to exposing Croatia’s potential Achilles heel: their ability to handle quick attackers. On a few occasions Raheem Sterling threatened to break through, and it will be interesting to see whether the similarly rapid Mbappé gives Croatia similar problems. Mbappé demonstrated his ability to expose defences with a barnstorming performance against Argentina, and if he or Griezmann manage to find space on the break Croatia could find themselves in serious trouble.
Kylian Mbappé seemingly has it all. He has an eye for goal, an incredible turn of speed and an exquisite first touch which belies his dynamism with the ball at his feet. He’s also only 19. Mbappé’s rare combination of speed, smarts and skill has made him the ideal counter-attacking weapon for the French at this tournament, and he will have a chance of seriously testing the Croatian defence with his many talents. If he can fire on the biggest stage of his budding career then he has the potential to take France to the trophy. He is France’s x-factor, and in conjunction with Griezmann he can really test Croatia out.
Luka Modrić is Croatia’s star, but Ivan Rakitić will be just as critical to Croatia’s fortunes. Rakitić was in brilliant form as the tournament began, but his form has waned in the knockouts and Croatia will need him to complement Modrić’s extraordinary vision if they are to break down a French defence which has already seen off some of the world’s most dynamic attacks. Rakitić can step up his game, and if he does Croatia will be very difficult to beat. Whether he will find that next level, however, is another question entirely.
France have no injury worries after their semi-final win over Belgium, and they are not likely to alter their starting line-up from that match. They are mostly in form, and the settled nature of their side makes them a dangerous opponent.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.
Strinić and Perišić are both in doubt, but Croatia have been able to get players over the line all tournament and it would be no surprise if those two were available. Of the pair, Strinić may be the least likely to play thanks to the dangers of playing a half-fit defender against Mbappé and the fact that Josip Pivarić provides a like-for-like replacement. The other question is whether Brozović or Kramarić will get to start. Brozović started against the English, but Dalić may decide a more attacking presence is necessary against France’s solid defence and it will be no surprise if Kramarić comes in.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Pivarić; Modrić, Rakitić; Rebić, Kramarić, Perišić; Mandžukić.
Both teams have plenty of big game experience and undeniable quality, and neither is likely to wilt under the pressure of a World Cup final. Croatia are likely to control the majority of possession, but France have been the more consistent side throughout and their favouritism in this final is well-deserved. Croatia have shown plenty of fight during the knockout stages, and they are a very good chance of causing an upset, but France’s all-round quality should be enough to get them over the line. France 2-1.