After just over a month of fun in the Russian sun, it all boils down to this – one game in Moscow on a Sunday afternoon.
And for all the talk of France being the firm favourites over a seemingly weaker Croatia side that has enjoyed a much less competitive route to the final, matches of this magnitude can often reduce to one goal, one moment or one key battle.
With that in mind, Football FanCast take a look at four that could decide the 2018 World Cup’s curtain calling finale…
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have been the real driving force behind Croatia’s success at the World Cup, giving them a base to not only launch attacks from but perhaps more importantly control the game with the ball. For a country not considered to be part of world football’s historic elite, that’s a massive advantage and a real endorsement of how effective this Croatia side actually is.
But if you can stop them playing, you’ve got a pretty good chance of stopping Croatia create anything meaningful in the final third, and that task will predominantly fall to Chelsea’s ankle-nipping tackle machine N’Golo Kante. He’s taken a slightly more reserved role at this World Cup to facilitate those around him, but the closer Didier Deschamps can get him to Modric and Rakitic, the better.
That being said, Kante will need help from Paul Pogba, who has been one of the most effective midfielders out in Russia. Whenever the Manchester United star’s fielded in a deeper midfield role, it always becomes a question of discipline and balancing defensive necessity with offensive flair. But if he can strike that something close to perfectly, his power and Kante’s tenacity should be enough to really stop this Croatia team from ticking.
Olivier Giroud’s yet to score a goal at this tournament, but the Chelsea striker nonetheless remains an important part of this France side because of the opportunities he creates for those around him, whether that’s directly or simply through occupying opposition defenders. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida will need to be wary of that, but it’s left-back Ivan Strinic who must be on his toes as the two centre-halves look to combat the physical foothold Giroud offers.
Kylian Mbappe has been one of the key benefactors with a brace against Argentina and another glistening performance in the win over Belgium, and his sheer speed has proved impossible for defenders to contain at times. Aged 30, Strinic isn’t the quickest full-back in the world, so it’s a question of positioning for the Sampdoria man and ensuring he isn’t drawn too close to the ball when Giroud picks it up in dangerous areas. One decent through ball is all Mbappe needs to charge at goal and start creating problems.
Ivan Perisic proved against England that Croatia’s quality in midfield stems beyond their two revered El Clasico playmakers as the powerful winger grabbed the first goal before assisting Mario Mandzukic with a deft header for the second. He’s probably Croatia’s most dynamic offensive threat and one of their least orthodox players – he likes to peel inside from the left to cause damage with his right foot or use his height, measuring in at just over six foot, to get on the end of deliveries into the box.
France right-back Benjamin Pavard will be pleased with the job he did on Eden Hazard last time out, struggling against the Belgian forward in the first half but having much more joy in the second and even finding the space to contribute going forward, creating one chance and taking an effort on goal – ushering reminders of that stunning strike against Argentina.
Perisic though, is a different kind of threat and perhaps Pavard’s best defence in this instance is a good offence. Croatia work relentlessly hard and Perisic will track him back if the Frenchman makes forward runs. But eventually, his energy will wane and that could result in the final’s underdogs finding themselves pinned back in their own half, struggling to break out.
Manduzkic might seem like your everyday target man but the Juventus forward is far wilier and dangerous than that. After all, we’re talking about a 32-year-old who has scored consistently for the top clubs in the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A while netting on some huge occasions – including the 2013 and 2017 Champions League finals. He showed those predatory instincts once again against England, keeping his focus until the second half of extra time to pounce on a loose ball in the box.
And that goal really epitomises the threat Mandzukic poses to Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, arguably the centre-back pairing of the tournament. Just when you think he’s tired and weary, he pops up inside the box with a match-winning finish.
The French duo will need to keep their eyes on the Juve star at all times, even when he ends up drifting out wide to receive the ball, and ensure he wins as little in the air as possible, which is still Croatia’s best chance of quickly getting up the pitch due to a lack of pace in other departments.