France lift the trophy against enterprising Croatians

Lucas Hernández worked his way into space on the left wing. The French left-back had neatly broken away from his marker, and he followed up by picking out Kylian Mbappé on the edge of the area. Mbappé, with no other option, had a shot. It wasn’t the 19-year-old prodigy’s best effort, but it was well-directed and it slipped through Danijel Subašić’s slightly limp dive, all but confirming France’s status as the winners of the 2018 World Cup. With 25 minutes to go, Mbappé’s strike put France ahead 4-1. That moment, with Mbappé standing in his trademark cross-armed celebratory pose and teammates flooding in from all angles, was as good as it got for Les Bleus.

Things weren’t so rosy in the opening stages of the final. Croatia, playing like they had nothing to lose, took the early initiative, stringing together some nice passing moves and putting France under pressure without creating any concrete chances. Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić showed signs of their effortlessly brilliant passing, but they couldn’t turn it into anything more concrete. Ivan Perišić, the hero of Croatia’s historic semi-final defeat of England, was at his most menacing, making barnstorming runs and nearly creating something on a few occasions. Unfortunately for Croatia, nearly creating something on a few occasions wasn’t going to cut it against the clinical France.

Just under 20 minutes in, France got a chance and put it away. Antoine Greizmann drew a soft free-kick on the edge of the box, and he had the chance to curl the ball towards goal with his lethal left boot. His kick didn’t pick out one of France’s rapidly moving centre-backs, both of whom were scrambling to get a head on the ball, but it did clip big Croatian frontman Mario Mandžukić on the way through. The inadvertent deflection left Subašić with no time to react, and Croatia were on the back foot despite their control of general play.

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Ivan Perišić is mobbed by teammates after scoring Croatia’s first goal. Perišić’s equaliser put Croatia back in the game, and his handball a few minutes later ultimately took the game away from them.

If France had thought that their goal would be enough to seal the World Cup, they were wrong. Less than 10 minutes after Mandžukić’s own goal they were back on level terms, thanks to a screamer from Perišić. Modrić delivered the initial ball, finding Šime Vrsaljko on the extreme right side of the penalty area. Vrsaljko headed the ball back into the centre, where it fell on Mandžukić’s head and bobbed up for Lovren and sat up for Vida and was diverted towards Perišić. After it’s convoluted journey Perišić was closed down quickly, and he immediately realised that a right-footed shot would be closed down by the quick-thinking N’Golo Kanté. Instead of attempting the shot, he just tapped it into space. With his left, he unleashed a shot towards the bottom corner, unstoppably driving it past Hugo Lloris with tremendous force. It took a slight deflection from Raphaël Varane, but it wasn’t as if Lloris would have saved it without his centre-back’s tiny intervention.

Croatia kept pushing, playing with admirable spirit and plenty of enterprise. Then the video assistant referee got involved, and the Croatians were dealt a blow from which they never recovered. The VAR hadn’t been much of a factor in the knockout stages, with few incidents being referred and few controversies arising as a result. Now, in the biggest game of them all, it decided to rear its head once more. Blaise Matuidi was the intended recipient of a corner swung in towards the near post, and although he couldn’t force his flick-on header past Perišić’s hand. France claimed the handball was illegal, Croatia argued that it was unavoidable. In the end, the French view was the one taken by referee Néstor Pitana, a penalty was awarded and Griezmann coolly retook the lead from the spot.

Croatia came agonisingly close to levelling on a few occasions as the half drew to a close, but they could never quite find the deft touch they needed to put their chances away. Everything they did looked threatening, but nothing they did quite managed to test Lloris and France continued to clear the ball away shakily before regrouping to rebuff Croatia’s next attack. The pattern began to repeat itself as the second half began, with Croatia asserting their control over proceedings and France seemingly struggling to keep up. They had the occasional counter-attack, but they mostly turned the ball over in their own half and resigned themselves to Croatia’s relentless onslaught.

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Kylian Mbappé (in blue) runs at the Croatian defence. Mbappé’s pace gave the Croatians plenty of issues, and he managed to cap off a great tournament with the match-sealing goal.

Then Paul Pogba stepped up. Pogba had been quiet in midfield, unable to exert his usual attacking influence and barely even receiving the ball as his midfield partner, N’Golo Kanté, had an unprecedented off day. Kanté, the running, intercepting machine holding France together, was even substituted, a sure sign that things were not right. With France under increasing pressure, Pogba finally conjured up a moment of brilliance which put them two ahead, scoring in the laconic style that can make him so enrapturing when his form is good and so infuriating when it is bad. He started the move, passing the ball from inside his own half and finding the pacey Mbappé in plenty of space. Mbappé ran himself into a corner and sought to pull the ball back for Griezmann, who received it and passed it backwards, to Pogba. Pogba had run a fair distance to regain possession on the edge of the box, and he looked to finish it off with a hard-hit shot. The first effort was solidly blocked, but Croatia weren’t so lucky when the curling follow-up (hit from the same spot with his “weaker” left foot) nestled itself in the back of the net.

After going two ahead, France seemed to flick a switch. Blaise Matuidi’s cross found Olivier Giroud in the centre, and the big striker attempted a bicycle kick across goal which nearly found Griezmann. Then Mbappé scored, and France could finally bask in the knowledge that the World Cup was theirs. The win was slightly tarnished a few minutes later, when Lloris had delusions of grandeur, tried to dribble past Mandžukić and allowed the striker to tackle the ball into the back of the net. Croatia didn’t recover, or even look like recovering, but the gaffe forced France to retreat back into their shell and make absolutely sure of their second World Cup triumph.

After the final whistle, the French players ran around the field joyously, waving their little French flags and embracing whichever teammate was in sight. Eventually, after the pomp and ceremony of the hurriedly set up stage and presentation, they got to hold their coveted prize. The rain had begun to set in, and the visiting dignitaries were quickly shielded by umbrellas, but the weather couldn’t dampen France’s celebrations as they lifted the trophy aloft and celebrated with pure, unadulterated joy. In quieter moments, they may reflect that Croatia controlled possession and territory, were the better side for much of the match and could have easily won the match. As the French revelled in their triumph such nuanced analysis of the match couldn’t have been further from their minds.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
France 4 (Mandžukić 19 og, Griezmann 38 pen, Pogba 59, Mbappé 65)
Croatia 2 (Perišić 28, Mandžukić 69)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté (N’Zonzi 55); Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso 73); Giroud (Fekir 81).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pjaca 82); Rakitić, Brozović; Rebić (Kramarić 71), Modrić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

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Antoine Griezmann celebrates with the World Cup trophy after France’s win. Griezmann had a hand in three of France’s four goals in a strong attacking performance.

Top 5
1. Antoine Griezmann (France)
With a goal, an assist and an assist to an own goal (Mandžukić may have provided the deflection, but Griezmann did most of the work) Griezmann capped off his World Cup with a strong performance. He built into the game as it went on, and he had a big impact working into small pockets of space.
2. Ivan Perišić (Croatia)
Perišić was in good form from the start, displaying his usually brash run down the left wing and putting plenty of pressure on the French. After a brilliant semi-final effort, he backed it up with a stunning leveller and some very dangerous attacking play. He conceded an unlucky penalty, but that moment shouldn’t detract from a great effort.
3. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
With player of the tournament Modrić struggling to have his usual impact, Rakitić stepped up and began to replicate his captain’s exploits. With the occasional cross-field pass, the occasional through ball and the occasional nice-looking dribble Rakitić managed to create some of Croatia’s best chances, and he can hold his head high.
4. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé’s breakout tournament finished on a suitably high note, with the young gun scoring a goal and capping off his night by being named best young player of the World Cup (if there was any competition). His speed was on display, and he badgered the Croatian defence on a few occasions before he finally broke through.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba’s final looked set to be a disappointment on an individual level. Approaching the end of the first hour, he had been largely anonymous as France were besieged by the confident Croatians. Then he found a window of opportunity, and he exploited it with incredible poise and stunning skill. His goal firmly tilted the match back in France’s favour, and it allowed him to regain some of his touch.

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2018 World Cup Final Preview – France vs Croatia

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.

Form Guide

France
Group Stage
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)
Quarter-Finals
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
Semi-Finals
France 1 (Umtiti 51), Belgium 0

Croatia
Group Stage
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)
Quarter-Finals
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115), Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Semi-Finals
Croatia 2 (Perišić 68, Mandžukić 109), England 1 (Trippier 5) (a.e.t)

Game Plan

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.

Key Questions

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.

Key Players

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.

Teams

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.

Prediction

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.

Subašić finally trumps Schmeichel as Croatia finally trump Denmark

Croatia entered their clash with Denmark on a high. Having won all three of their group stage matches at a canter, they had slotted into the easy side of the draw. With plenty of quality and a relatively simple path to the final made easier by Russia’s upset win over Spain hours earlier, Croatia had reason to be confident. Denmark, whose progress to the round of 16 was solid rather than spectacular, were expected to provide a test, but the Croatians seemed good enough to progress without too much trouble. Eventually, they did progress – with the last penalty of a drama-filled shootout.

Denmark couldn’t have started better. Just 58 seconds after kick-off, the ball was in the back of the net, courtesy of a long throw-in. Jonas Knudsen hurled the ball a remarkable distance after Denmark won the throw on the right, and the Croatians didn’t know what to do. The ball slipped over the back to Mathias Jørgensen, whose hastily scrambled shot rebounded off Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subašić and the post before going in. A team with star players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool and Atlético Madrid had been undone by a remarkably long heave from Ipswich Town’s left-back. It wasn’t the prettiest way to score a goal, but the throw was a brutally effective means of breaking down Croatia’s defence.

Denmark’s lead didn’t last long. To be precise, it lasted all of one minute and 52 seconds. Šime Vrsaljko found space on the right, and played a fairly routine ball into the box. It should have been cleared easily by Henrik Dalsgaard, who found the ball at his feet with no opponents around. Instead, he firmly planted the ball into the face of teammate Andreas Christensen, and the ball bounced kindly for Mario Mandžukić in the box. The big striker had little problem putting the chance away from close range, and suddenly the game was back on level terms. In less than four minutes, both sides had scored, and the frenetic beginning suggested that an exciting match was in the offing.

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Mario Mandžukić (front) and Mathias Jørgensen battle for the ball in the air. Both men scored their team’s only goals, both of which came in the opening five minutes of the match.

Then neither side scored for the rest of the match. Unsurprisingly, things started to settle down after the frenetic beginning. Croatia seemed to take control of possession, and they began to find the better chances. Ante Rebić was fouled on the edge of the area, but Ivan Perišić’s free-kick was drilled into the wall and away for a corner. Perišić’s dangerous cross caused more problems for Denmark as Knudsen and Mandžukić tussled in the box and the striker appealed for a penalty. Néstor Pitana, the intense-looking Argentinian referee, was unmoved, telling Mandžukić in no uncertain terms that he had not been fouled and that he should get up. Rebić forced Kasper Schmeichel to parry his shot from close range, and Perišić bungled a golden opportunity when his second-chance shot thudded harmlessly into the turf and didn’t even reach the six-yard box. Dejan Lovren connected with Luka Modrić’s free-kick, but his header didn’t have enough on it and it flew wide of its mark. As the game progressed, however, Croatia’s opportunities began to dry up against Denmark’s well-drilled defence.

Denmark had some opportunities, particularly in the second half, but they didn’t have the clinical touch in attack to trouble Croatia. Martin Braithwaite had – and missed – most of their best chances. Early on, he went one-on-one with Subašić, but the Croatian keeper saved his shot well. Then the ball kicked up into his face and trailed away for a goal-kick. Yussuf Poulsen created a chance for him in the centre, but Braithwaite blasted the shot a long way wide. Thomas Delaney ran straight through the heart of the Croatian defence, and then completed his seemingly endless run with a pass for Braithwaite. Braithwaite missed. There were other chances, like when Danish star Christian Eriksen hit the bar (it never really looked like testing Subašić) and when Nicolai Jørgensen forced Subašić into a save from a decent position, but Denmark weren’t really worrying the Croatians.

In the last 10 minutes of normal time, Croatia began to step up their game. Perišić headed the ball onto the roof of the net, and Rebić made a couple of dangerous runs down the right after Perišić’s quickly-taken throw-in caught Denmark unawares and heralded a short period of goalmouth action. It passed, however, and there was no goal in the first 90 minutes. The Danish started extra time well, putting Croatia under pressure with a series of Knudsen’s gigantic throws and some good attacks. Domagoj Vida was a little hasty in coming out of position, and Denmark threatened as Eriksen perfectly threaded the ball through the gap he left in the defensive line. Knudsen won a corner with some good work down the left, and Denmark continued to threaten, but they couldn’t break through.

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Luka Modrić reacts with relief after scoring during the penalty shootout. Modrić had a golden opportunity to win it for Croatia in the final minutes of extra time, but Kasper Schmeichel managed to save his penalty.

Then Modrić began to get involved. Croatia’s star created a brilliant chance out of nothing with a beautiful ball for Andrej Kramarić, but Denmark survived as Schmeichel tapped a potentially dangerous cross over the bar. Then Modrić produced another moment of inspiration which seemingly confirmed Croatia’s victory. Upon receiving the ball in midfield, he threaded a delightful pass through the heart of the Danish defence, putting Rebić one-on-one with Schemichel. At pace, Rebić rounded Schmeichel on the edge of the box, and all that was left to do was slot the ball into an open net. He didn’t get the chance as Mathias Jørgensen slid in from behind, conceding the penalty and putting his further participation in the match in serious doubt. Mercifully, he was only booked by Pitana, but Modrić was almost certain to score. He didn’t. Schmeichel dived the right way and clutched the ball gratefully, and the game was destined for penalties. Schmeichel was brimming with confidence, and Denmark seemed to have the upper-hand as Eriksen stepped up to take the first kick of the shootout.

Enter Subašić. Eriksen’s penalty was saved by the Croatian goalkeeper, who flung himself the right way, diverted the ball into the post, and celebrated with understandable gusto. Croatia had the edge. Then Schmeichel, determined to match his counterpart, denied Milan Badelj with his feet. The teams were back level. Finally, with the fourth penalty taken in the match, Simon Kjær scored. He drilled an unstoppable shot into the top corner, and the goalkeepers’ desperate attempts to one-up each other proceeded to take the back seat as the shootout began to follow a more familiar pattern. Kramarić scored, and Schmeichel was warned for coming off his line before the kick was taken. Michael Krohn-Dehli scored. For once, Modrić looked unsure of himself, and nervous. He scored anyway, going straight down the middle and only just eluding Schmeichel’s feet before trotting away relieved.

Then Subašić made another save. Lasse Schöne took the kick, drilling it to the left and watching as it was emphatically parried by the diving goalkeeper. Once again, Croatia had the ascendency as Josip Pivarić prepared to take his penalty. Unfortunately for Croatia, anything Subašić could do, Schmeichel could seemingly do better. Pivarić took a long run up, taking a few sidesteps and running at the ball with some aggression. Schmeichel was unperturbed, and made the save. The battle of the two goalkeepers was back on, and the penalty-takers were becoming increasingly nervous. Subašić did it again. Brimming with confidence, he denied Nicolai Jørgensen with his feet. Croatia just needed to score to win, with Rakitić entrusted with the crucial kick. Unlike so many before him, he made no error. Relief washed over Croatia as they ensured they would not become the next highly-rated team to fall by the wayside, and booked a date with the hosts in Sochi. Their performance was shaky, and probably their worst of the tournament thus far, but it was a win. The fact that they’re still in the competition means that the drama, tension and the very late night was worth it.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4)
Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 81); Rakitić, Brozović (Kovačić 71); Rebić, Modrić, Perišić (Kramarić 97); Mandžukić (Badelj 108).
Denmark (4-3-3): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, M Jørgensen, Knudsen; Christensen (Schöne 46), Delaney (Krohn-Dehli 98), Eriksen; Poulsen, Cornelius (N Jørgensen 66), Braithwaite (Sisto 106).

Luka Modrić and Danijel Subašić celebrate after Croatia’s victory. Subašić played a key role in the shootout with three penalty saves.

Top 5
1. Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)
Schmeichel made all of the saves he had to in general play, and then went to a whole new level as the match was drawing to a close. He saved Modrić’s penalty to ensure the game went to a shootout, and he kept Denmark in the shootout by making a couple of excellent saves. At times, he looked unbeatable.
2. Danijel Subašić (Croatia)
Subašić had a quieter game than his opposite number, and then proceeded to win Croatia the game with his penalty shootout heroics. He made three saves from five Danish penalties, and his efforts were eventually enough for Croatia to come away with the win. He will take massive confidence from some of his penalty stops.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić is having a brilliant individual tournament, and the dynamic winger continued to feature prominently with his all-action approach. Mathias Jørgensen’s foul from behind was all that stopped him from putting away a late winner, and he made a number of dangerous runs from both wings and through the middle.
4. Thomas Delaney (Denmark)
Delaney used his physicality to good effect, making his presence felt against Croatia’s star-studded midfield and providing an attacking threat with his dangerous forward runs. One such run took him well in the area, and his slightly inadvertent assist for Denmark’s only goal showed his attacking threat.
5. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić showed his cool temperament when he calmly slotted the winning penalty, and he stood up to fill the void when Modrić had a quiet game (an event which may never occur again). He seemed to take on the majority of Croatia’s playmaking duties, and he created some decent opportunities with his excellent passing.

Dismal Argentina picked apart by ruthless Croatians

The game was all but over. A listless Argentinian team had been destroyed by a clinical Croatian side, and they were waiting to be put out of their misery by the final blast of referee Ravshan Irmatov’s whistle. Talismanic captain Lionel Messi had done nothing. In goal, Willy Caballero had been woeful. Now, in the dying moments, Croatia ran forward on the counter-attack. Three men broke forward against a stretched Argentinian defence, and the ball reached Ivan Rakitić in the centre. Rakitić fired a shot at Caballero, who dived to make the save but couldn’t tip it out of harm’s way. Instead, it fell to late substitute Mateo Kovačić. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, he could have easily scored then and there. He decided not to, playing a pass into Rakitić, who brought the ball to a complete stop before disdainfully stroking it past Marcos Acuña into the back of the net. Croatia’s previous two goals were bad enough. This one was so contemptuous, and showed so little respect for Argentina’s proud footballing history, that it was much worse. Before Rakitić’s goal, Croatia had beaten Argentina. After Rakitić scored, the defeat became a humiliation.

It hadn’t started that poorly for Argentina. They won their fair share of possession in the early stages, and managed to find a few little openings against the Croatian defence. Croatia had most of the clear-cut chances, like when Ivan Perišić tore into space and drilled a shot at Caballero, and when Mario Mandžukić couldn’t quite connect with an open header from close range, but they weren’t dominating. Then, Argentina blew their best opportunity of the match. It started on the wing, where Acuña cut inside right-back Šime Vrsaljko and caught Dejan Lovren out of position. When Domagoj Vida deflected the resulting cross straight to Enzo Pérez on the edge of the box, the midfielder was faced with a defence in disarray and an open net. Somehow, he missed.

Jorge Sampaoli (front) looks on as Croatia put the finishing touches on their victory. Sampaoli came into the match under a lot of pressure, and the crushing defeat didn’t help his cause.

As the stalemate continued to linger, Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli was nervous. After Argentina’s first-up draw with Iceland he was under pressure, and it showed. When Maximiliano Meza’s attempt at a cross inadvertently hit the bar, he threw his arms up in the air. When Ante Rebić, right in front of the Argentinian bench, fouled Eduardo Salvio, Sampaoli raged at the referee, calling for a red card and trying to find someone – anyone – with whom he could air his concerns. Occasionally, he summoned a mysterious-looking long-haired assistant, and, with their mouths covered in case Croatia had a lip reader handy, they engaged in tactical discussions. Mostly, though, the bald-headed coach just paced around his technical area, wearing a black jacket, a black shirt and a concerned demeanour. He walked at a disconcertingly fast pace, as though he was running late for an important appointment. As the contest became increasingly physical, Sampaoli became increasingly tense.

Then, shortly after the break, Croatia took the lead in embarrassing circumstances. The goal was a gift. Argentina intercepted Croatia’s long heave forward, and Gabriel Mercado played it back to his goalkeeper. He shouldn’t have. When Caballero got the ball, he looked to pass it back to Mercado. Even with Rebić standing vaguely in between them, it shouldn’t have been a hard task. After all, Rebić’s press was more a token gesture than a serious attempt to win the ball back. Then Caballero tried a chip pass, mishit it and ballooned it in the direction of Rebić, who made no mistake with the volley. It was a farcical piece of play, and it left Argentina chasing the game against a strong Croatian team.

At one point, Gonzalo Higuaín nearly created an equaliser with a nice cut-back for Meza, but Danijel Subašić made a fine reflex save and Rakitić desperately slid in to prevent Messi from getting himself a goal. Argentina’s star, hero and occasional one-man team had been completely shut down, and his teammates couldn’t cope. As the game went on, Messi showed signs of frustration. On the touchline, Sampaoli had ditched the jacket, and was now pacing around in a slightly-too-tight black t-shirt which clearly showed his heavily tattooed arms. He was frantic, and the removal of the jacket only made him look more nervous. His substitutions had been made, and it was out of his hands. Then Luka Modrić scored.

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Luka Modrić (right) celebrates after doubling Croatia’s lead late in the game. Modrić’s goal from long range capped off a brilliant performance in midfield.

Modrić, as ever, had been excellent in midfield. Now, with 10 minutes of normal time left to play, he received the ball on the edge of the box, with Nicolás Otamendi barring his way. He took a touch to the right, then the left, before going right again. Then he unleashed a shot at the Argentinian goal. Otamendi was there, but his outstretched right leg couldn’t impede the ball’s progress. Caballero dived full length, but he could only get his fingertips to the ball and couldn’t stop it as it lodged itself in the bottom corner. It was a great goal, and it sealed Argentina’s fate. Sampaoli’s team were in no mood to attempt a miraculous comeback.

Tempers flared late, with Otamendi nearly starting a brawl by lashing out at Rakitić and two other players receiving yellow cards as the match drew to a close. Argentina tried to manufacture something in attack, relying on the immensely talented players on the pitch to see them through, but there was no real structure and Croatia rebuffed them with contemptuous ease. After Rakitić’s goal, and with the game drawing to a close, Sampaoli could only stand in the dugout and stare into the distance. Argentina still have a chance to progress, but that chance is as slim as ever. Their talents have failed, Sampaoli’s time as coach is almost certainly coming to a disappointing end, and it would take a miracle for Messi to get his World Cup title. In Argentina, football is so revered that it’s not too much of an exaggeration to call this defeat a national crisis. There’s no way of knowing how big the fallout of this crushing defeat – against brilliant opposition, it must be said – will prove to be.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Argentina 0
Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
Argentina (3-4-3): Caballero – Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Salvio (Pavón 56), Pérez (Dybala 68), Mascherano, Acuña; Messi, Agüero (Higuaín 54), Meza.
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Brozović; Perišić (Kovačić 82), Modrić, Rebić (Kramarić 57); Mandžukić (Ćorluka 90+3).

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Ivan Rakitić finishes off Croatia’s win with a goal into an open net. Rakitić put in a brilliant midfield performance, and the late goal was just reward for his efforts.

Top 5
1. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić finished off a simple chance in injury time to cap off a brilliant individual game with a deserved goal. He fought hard all day, and his block to deny Messi from close range was a perfect example of how hard he worked defensively. In attack, he combined well with Modrić and started to get into dangerous positions, and his all-round performance bodes well for the rest of the tournament.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić was at his best directing traffic in the middle of the park. He was always on hand to pick out a key pass, make a dangerous little run or find some other way to trouble Argentina’s defence, and he capped it off with a brilliant goal from long range. With him pulling the strings in the middle there is very little Croatia can’t do.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić went off injured less than an hour into the game, but he left a mark with his incredibly vigorous attack on the ball. He was rewarded for his hard running with a goal when he intercepted Caballero’s horrendous pass and made a tough volley look deceptively easy, and Croatia will hope he is fit to take the field for their final group stage game.
4. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić is still yet to score a goal at this tournament, but he has looked so good leading the line that he is sure to find the scoresheet some time soon. He used his physical power and excellent positioning to intimidate the Argentinian defence, and he could have bagged a couple of goals with headers that only just missed the target.
5. Marcos Acuña (Argentina)
Coming into the team after Argentina’s disappointing display against Iceland, Acuña was one of few bright spots to come out of the loss. He fought hard until the end, and showed some promise shuffling up and down the left wing. His crosses were about the most dangerous aspect of Argentina’s play.

Workmanlike Croatia shut out toothless Nigeria

On paper, this match-up was tantalising. Croatia and Nigeria both have the capacity to thrill and disappoint, and it seemed like the clash between the two could provide plenty of excitement and plenty of drama. In the end, it achieved neither, with the Croatians putting in a workmanlike but rather unspectacular performance and their opponents struggling to make headway in attack. By the final whistle Croatia had a two-goal buffer, with an own goal and a penalty their reward for a disciplined performance against a toothless Nigerian side.

Croatia settled into the rhythm of the game fairly quickly, knocking the ball around with confidence, controlling the majority of possession and largely keeping the Nigerians away from their attacking third. For all that control, however, they never really looked like making an impact on the scoreboard, even if their front four of Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić, Ivan Perišić and Andrej Kramarić were occasionally threatening. Then, after a reasonably mundane first half hour in which neither team looked like making inroads, Croatia took the lead.

Croatia celebrate after opening the scoring through an Oghenekaro Etebo own goal. The goal was very scrappy, with a number of players getting touches to bundle a Luka Modrić corner into the back of the net.

The goal originated from a corner, but it still came slightly out of the blue. Luka Modrić, whose new role deeper in midfield had left him largely isolated from the attack, delivered the corner perfectly to Rebić at the front post. That was where the beauty of the move stopped. Eventually the ball made its way across goal, rolling meekly past Francis Uzoho into the back of the net. No one player could be called responsible, with Rebić’s flick-on header, Mandžukić’s outmanoeuvring of William Troost-Ekong and subsequent headed shot and Oghenekaro Etebo’s unlucky diversion of said shot into his own net all contributing to the end result. It was scrappy, but it did the trick for Croatia. The fact that they still hadn’t put a shot on target didn’t really matter too much.

After taking the lead the Croats simply continued to play as they had before, doing nothing spectacular but keeping the Nigerians from gaining any traction with their controlled passing and security in possession. Victor Moses threatened to break free on a couple of occasions, but a couple of near-breaks was hardly enough to send shivers through the Croatian defence. The half time break didn’t halt their charge, and they created a few more chances but, most importantly, they were secure in their one-goal advantage and never gave Nigeria the window of opportunity they were after. Then they scored again, and the result was beyond doubt.

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Francis Uzoho (front) makes a save to deny Mateo Kovačić (second from right) late in the game. Uzoho became the first teenage goalkeeper to appear in the tournament since 2002, and he put in a decent showing.

Once again, the goal started with a corner and Modrić’s excellent delivery into the penalty area. This time, however, it didn’t pick out a Croatian player, with Leon Balogun heading the ball away from a dangerous spot and Nigeria emerging with the ball, seemingly unscathed. Unfortunately for the Super Eagles, Troost-Ekong decided to use illegal tactics to keep Mandžukić out of the action, wrapping both arms around the big striker before bringing him to the ground in a move which would not have been out of place at a WWE event. Even more unfortunately for Nigeria, Troost-Ekong’s roughhousing of his dangerous opponent did not go unnoticed by Sandro Ricci, allowing Modrić to slam the penalty home.

Down two goals, Nigeria tried desperately to make a final push, but there was no coming back for the Super Eagles and their lacklustre attack. Croatia had a chance to increase their lead late when Mateo Kovačić forced a good save from Uzoho, but that missed opportunity won’t weigh too heavily on their minds after their professional ninety minute effort. Nigeria’s struggles, on the other hand, show they have a long way to go, and they will need to turn things around quickly if they want to hang around past the group stage.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen)
Nigeria 0
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Modrić; Perišić, Kramarić (Brozović 60), Rebić (Kovačić 78); Mandžukić (Pjaca 85).
Nigeria (4-2-3-1): Uzoho – Abdullahi Shehu, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Idowu; Ndidi, Etebo; Moses, Mikel (Nwankwo 88), Iwobi (Musa 62); Ighalo (Iheanacho 75).

Top 5
1. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić played a key role in both of Croatia’s goals. He was the last Croatian to touch the ball before Etebo diverted it into his own net, and he won the penalty that sealed the win after Troost-Ekong crudely felled him in the box. He got himself into good positions throughout and used his size to his advantage, and he caused plenty of issues for the Nigerian defence.
2. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić was everywhere for the Croatians, spending time on both the left and right wings and working very hard wherever he happened to be positioned. He was tireless in both attack and defence, chasing up every ball and proving to be a handful whenever he received possession in attack. He was the most dangerous player early on, and did enough to earn another run in a strong Croatian team.
3. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić started the game quietly, but his set piece delivery created all of his side’s meaningful chances and Croatia’s play improved dramatically when he got more time on the ball in attack. He sealed the win with a perfectly taken penalty, and, given his high standards, left himself plenty of room for improvement for the rest of the tournament. He could have a big impact.
4. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses was Nigeria’s most active player, and was the only Super Eagle on the field who looked capable of making his own opportunities. He showed glimpses of his immense talents and gave Ivan Strinić plenty to think about, and he was one of the hardest workers on the field. If he gets some support, he could be a very dangerous player in the rest of the tournament.
5. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić’s role was mainly in the background, but he was very secure with the ball at his feet and that security allowed the rest of the team to thrive. He showed his vision and quality with some of his incisive passes, and he performed his defensive duties in the centre of midfield well. When he and Modrić find their rhythm as a combination the Croatians will be tough to stop.